Visionaries: Harvard's George Church, A Gene-Era Imagineer Who 'Tells The Muggles' (Church Lab)

George Church grew up by the mudflats in Clearwater, Florida, where his school didn’t even have a science teacher until he was in seventh grade. But he was always fascinated by nature, and "interested in sort of random experiments, like burning things with magnifying glasses — the kind of things kids do."

In his case, the hijinks arose from an irresistible drive to understand. "To me, everything had to be explained," he recalls. "I was a little compulsive, maybe."

When Church was 10 years old, he traveled the farthest he’d ever been from his Florida home, to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. There, he saw a vision of what the future could be like.

"And that was extremely motivating for me," he says. "I decided, in some sense, at that moment, I was going to help create that future, whatever it took."

Church, of Harvard Medical School, is 62 now, a towering man of 6-foot-5 with a full white beard, famous as one of the world's more brilliant scientists and on this year's Thomson Reuters short-list for the Nobel Prize in chemistry. And he has helped create that future.

It’s a future that few could imagine back in 1964: a world where humankind not only decodes its own genes but is beginning to alter them, even to make them, in the lab.

Church has long been at the forefront of this new gene era -- working to figure out how to sequence or "read" DNA better and faster and cheaper. How to "write" DNA, or build it from scratch. And how to modify genes with a powerful new tool called CRISPR, a sort of a molecular scissors used to cut and edit specific genes.

In just three years, CRISPR has swept through biology labs around the world, turbocharging research on everything from cancer to better food crops.

"It really seems to be unstoppable," Church says. "That said, there are possible improvements. But it is taking the world by storm."

CRISPR is widely expected to earn at least one of its pioneers a Nobel soon. Church and colleagues were the first to show how it could be used in human and mouse cells; hence, his place on the Nobel short-list this year.

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