George Church, Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School

George Church, Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School

George provided input to Natural Code LLC, helping fine-tune the prize specification before its official announcement at Arizona State. Last week Front Line Genomics reported on the prize. Here, Church answers some questions…

FLG: What is the significance of the Evolution 2.0 Prize?

GC: Information-rich polymers (DNA, RNA, proteins) emerged from a non-living billion cubic km soup once in a billion years. The Evolution 2.0 Prize presents a challenge of recreating this faster and from a smaller volume. The prize also embraces the commercial potential of such an invention. Many companies already successfully exploit evolution, so a breakthrough of this magnitude could have a large return on investment. 

FLG: Do you think it will take a major conceptual shift or fundamental discovery to solve the information problem?

GC: It is probably fairly straightforward engineering, but is still quite important — as has been the case for previous accelerated evolution successes.

FLG: Do you see Origin Of Life as a mostly separate issue from evolution itself, or closely related?

GC: The origin of biopolymers from simple compounds is certainly separate from other significant evolutionary questions such as those concerning changes in the developmental biology of animals. Each present interesting scientific and engineering opportunities. 

FLG: What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of a prize model compared to traditional research funding?

GC: One disadvantage is that the teams have to raise their own funding before they can start. An advantage is that the funding group knows what it is paying for. 

$5 Million Tech Prize Seeks Answer to Origin of Life

FLG: Dead molecules do not exhibit teleology/teleonomy. But cells and organisms do. At what level of complexity do you believe that purposeful behavior is detectable?

GC: “Teleonomy is the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness.” — Wikipedia. Detection of apparently purposeful behavior can be misleading. Our ancestors might have justifiably felt that the goal of rain is to move from the sky to the ground, or the goal of “dead” toxin molecules (or viral molecules) is to penetrate cells. It isn’t clear that deciding if a behavior is “purposeful” helps us predict or optimize chemistry to stop toxin or viral or bacterial mechanisms.

FLG: Do you think cellular cognition has any relationship to the mind/body problem in philosophy?

GC: Cellular cognition and mind/body problems are potentially interesting philosophically, but not necessarily practically. 

FLG: Are cells essentially Turing machines? Or do they contain something that goes beyond computation?

GC: “A Turing machine is a mathematical model of computation that defines an abstract machine which manipulates symbols on a strip of tape according to a table of rules.”–Wikipedia. Cells have complex sets of sensors and actuators which interact with and adapt to a highly dynamic real-world environment. That is not a key component of Turing machines. 

FLG: Do you feel the Human Genome Project and genome sequencing, in general, has lived up to the expectations we had 15-20 years ago?

GC: The huge benefits of genomics did not build on the HGP (1990-2003), but built on a fresh approach called “next-generation sequencing” (2003-2017). The benefits are not only in diagnostics, but also therapeutics, agriculture, and chemistry — with a 140 to 1 return on investment. 

FLG: What is your opinion about the fact that the Evolution 2.0 prize requires the process to be patentable to receive the full award? Does this present ethical problems? 

GC: In principle, any new technology could have unintended negative consequences, but this technology seems likely to be fairly safe and uncontroversial.  

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