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Google Already Consulted With Top Geneticist on Mosquito Project, Hinting at Next Alphabet Moonshot

A leading geneticist has had talks with Larry Page and a top Google exec about the field.

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images Europe

Alphabet, Google’s new holding company and moonshot incubator, may soon take a crack at a longtime obsession of biological researchers: Deploying genetically modified mosquitoes to fight disease. That’s a particular interest of Linus Upson, a Google engineering VP who co-created the Chrome browser but left that team last October.

The Information reported yesterday that Upson has voiced this interest internally. But, the publication noted, it is unclear if Google has hired any scientists for the endeavor.

It has talked to one, Re/code has learned. George Church, a leading geneticist and molecular engineer at Harvard University, said he has had discussions with both Upson and Alphabet chief Larry Page about his research that uses CRISPR, a powerful gene-editing technique.

Google declined to comment.

Some companies are relying on similar genetic editing with mosquitoes for profit, such as a pesticide alternative. Church said that Page and Upson have primarily expressed interest in the technology’s ability to combat diseases like malaria and dengue fever. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded this type of research. “We’re not anticipating it will be a commercial success,” Church said. “It might be easier to go the philanthropic route through the Gates Foundation or Google.”

The scale of the health issue is massive, suiting Alphabet’s aim: Around 3.2 billion people are at risk of malaria, which caused an estimated half a million deaths in 2013, according to the World Health Organization. An estimated 390 million people are infected with dengue fever yearly.

My colleague James Temple wrote at length about Church and the budding industry of genetic research last year — it’s well worth a read to understand the subject.

Church is also the co-founder of Editas Medicine, a startup that uses genetic engineering to develop therapeutic products. On Monday, Editas closed a $120 million funding round led by Boris Nikolic, whose fund is backed by Bill Gates. Google Ventures, soon an entity within Alphabet, was also involved.

Church stressed that his conversations with Upson focused on the research applied to mosquitoes, not Editas’ work on human gene therapies nor the Google Ventures funding. The two met at a recent DARPA event.

Upson, a Googler since 2005, built the initial Chrome browser with incoming Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and led engineering for Chrome until October. It’s not clear what he has been working on since. But this type of project — an ambitious entry into a field beyond the Internet — fits with the nascent portrait we have of Alphabet, which Page designed, in part, to retain executives.

Page himself has expressed interest in genetic editing research, Church noted, although their conversations are not limited to that topic. “I have talked to Larry about a whole diverse set of things,” he said.

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