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Issue 200

Lynn Hershman Leeson Interviews George Church

‘If anything can be converted to DNA, then this interview could become a DNA portrait of you’

BY Lynn Hershman Leeson in Fan Letter | 11 JAN 19

DNA rendering. Courtsy: CC0 Public Domain

Lynn Hershman Leeson: You’re known as the father of synthetic biology. Why?

George Church: We have been developing exponentially improving technologies to read and write DNA, so putting them into an archival system for storage of analogue and digital information seemed like a natural thing. It’s very important that we keep track of history in an archival sense, in a living sense. It’s better if we keep them in an intact ecosystem because we don’t know enough about these ecosystems to re-create them from frozen storage. We need to keep historical versions and living versions of everything – cultures, languages – and some of our technological progress needs to include setting up those archives.

LHL: If anything can be converted to DNA, then this interview could become a DNA portrait of you, right? How would it manifest and how would it be shown? 

GC: My lab, Microsoft and Technicolor have stored videos in DNA. We converted Georges Méliès’s 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon, to digital zeros and ones, then to DNA, and then back again into a displayable movie, and you can’t tell the difference between the original and final films. The DNA-encoded version will probably remain stable for a million years. So long as we ourselves remain a DNA life form, it’s likely we’ll be able to read DNA.

LHL: That’s a big if.

GC: One of my postdoctoral researchers describes this field as ‘sculpting evolution’.

LHL: It is! I really believe that this is the art form not of the future but of our time, right now.

GC: It’s a four-dimensional sculpture. It includes every part of our ecosystem.

LHL: And time.

GC: Right, that’s the fourth dimension. Time.

Lynn Hershman Leeson is an artist based in San Francisco, USA. This year, her work will be included in group shows at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, USA.