By: Adrian Smith
A closed-door meeting was held on Tuesday at Harvard Medical School in Boston, where scientists spoke secretly about the possibility of developing a synthetic human genome. Using chemicals to manufacture replicas of all DNA contained in human chromosomes, scientists would be able to create human beings—without biological parents—a prospect that worries the life science community as much as it may interest them.
Dr. Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford, made the list of people invited to this private meeting but elected not to attend, citing a lack of transparency as well as interest in the ethical implications in the project. Organizers have named the project, ‘HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells’ as it involves writing the human genome, synthesizing all 3 billion units from chemicals. The proposed idea would be a follow up to the original ‘Human Genome Project’, which served the purpose of reading the sequence of 3 billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint of human life.
Those in attendance, almost 150 scientists and researchers, were asked not to contact the news media or post on Twitter or any other form of social media during the meeting. The idea would not only allow scientists to create copies of human beings, it would let them create copies of specific people holding certain traits. The prospect of being able to duplicate great intellectuals, athletes, soldiers and so on worries scientists like Dr. Endy, who point out realities such as how many of these type genomes should be made and installed into cells, and who are we trusting to create them?
Organizers of the meeting include Jef Bocke, director of the institute for systems genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center, Andrew Hessell, a self-proclaimed ‘futurist’ from the Bay Area Software Company (who first proposed this idea in 2002), and George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical school who claims their proposed project isn’t necessarily aimed at creating human beings but simply cells that would not be restricted to human genomes. Rather, it would aim to improve the ability to synthesize DNA in general, which would be applied to various animals, as well as plants and microbes.
Church insists the meeting was closed to news outlets and social media because organizers had submitted a paper to a scientific journal and were not supposed to discuss the idea publicly before the paper reached publication. Contrary to questions surrounding the topic, Church says this was their attempt to be transparent. At this point, it’s difficult for DNA to be synthesized, on top of being error prone. But with the cost and capabilities quickly improving, the primary goal for this project is to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a 10-year window.
Dr. Endy notes that since 2003, the cost of synthesizing genes has dropped from $4 per base to 3 cents in present day money but cautions that even with this rapid reduction, the cost for 3 billion chemical letters would be a jaw-dropping $90 million. Organizers do not yet have funding for their project, but a number of companies and foundations have expressed interest, and many more would be invited to contribute to the project.
Skeptics point out that the human genome is so large they cannot be sure that synthesizing at this pace would be feasible and question whether or not it is worth it to try. Until then, though, this idea remains only an idea discussed behind closed doors.