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Can Neanderthals Be Brought Back from the Dead?

In a SPIEGEL interview, synthetic biology expert George Church of Harvard University explains how DNA will become the building material of the future — one that can help create virus-resistant human beings and possibly bring back lost species like the Neanderthal.

George Church, 58, is a pioneer in synthetic biology, a field whose aim is to create synthetic DNA and organisms in the laboratory. During the 1980s, the Harvard University professor of genetics helped initiate the Human Genome Project that created a map of the human genome. In addition to his current work in developing accelerated procedures for sequencing and synthesizing DNA, he has also been involved in the establishing of around two dozen biotech firms. In his new book, “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves,” which he has also encoded as strands of DNA and distributed on small DNA chips, Church sketches out a story of a second, man-made Creation.

SPIEGEL recently sat down with Church to discuss his new tome and the prospects for using synthetic biology to bring the Neanderthal back from exctinction as well as the idea of making humans resistant to all viruses.

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SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, you predict that it will soon be possible to clone Neanderthals. What do you mean by “soon”? Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?

Church: That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so. The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before. In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning. We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?

SPIEGEL: Perhaps because it is banned?

Church: That may be true in Germany, but it’s not banned all over the world. And laws can change, by the way.

SPIEGEL: Would cloning a Neanderthal be a desirable thing to do?

Read more at Spiegel Online.

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