‘A feature, not a bug’: George Church ascribes his visionary ideas to narcolepsy

Sharon Begley:

Church stood throughout an interview last week in his office at Harvard Medical School — where his lab’s past and current projects range from using DNA for data storage to resurrecting the wooly mammoth, from creating mini-brains on plates to doing a gut renovation of pig genomes so their organs might be transplantable into people. For the first time, he opened up about his journey with narcolepsy: when he realized he had it, how he copes, why he’s avoided the standard drugs, the virtues of parking brakes, what happened when he and his daughter (who also has narcolepsy) both fell asleep while speaking with her teacher … and how his narcolepsy underlies his creativity and scientific achievements.

Church said “almost all” of his visionary ideas and scientific solutions have come while he was either asleep or quasi-asleep, sometimes dreaming, at the beginning or end of a narcoleptic nap. Such as? The breakthrough during graduate school that ushered in “next gen” genome sequencing, a fast and cheap way to “read” DNA. “Writing genomes,” or constructing them from off-the-shelf molecules as a way to improve on what nature came up with. Innovations in editing genomes.

These brainstorms, and more, occurred while he was “either daydreaming or night dreaming or in that period when I’m really refreshed right afterward,” said Church, who will be 63 in August. “It took me until I was 50 or 60 years old” to realize that narcolepsy “is a feature, not a bug.”