After a secret meeting, scientists announce they are making synthetic human genomes


An international group of scientists has just announced their plan to create a synthetic human genome within 10 years – which means they’re going to try to write a brand new DNA code for human life from scratch. The ambitious undertaking, called Human Genome Project-write, could be the key to understanding human disease better than ever before, and it could also greatly reduce the cost of genetic sequencing. It’s an incredibly exciting project for science, but what’s worrying some is the fact that the project has been launched without the public having been properly consulted on any ethical concerns.

Rumours about the new project started last month, when 150 scientists met in a closed-door meeting at Harvard Medical School to talk about building an entirely synthetic human genome.

The fact that journalists weren’t allowed to be at the meeting was met with criticism, and now 25 of the researchers have outlined their proposal in Science although it hasn’t done much to relieve concerns. 

Posed as an unofficial follow-up to the hugely important Human Genome Project (HGP) – which ended in 2004 and resulted in the complete mapping of our genetic code – the goal of HGP-write is to take things one step further and not just read our genomes, but create them.

The expectation is that this research, if nothing else, will drop the price of genetic engineering and testing 1,000-fold over the next decade – which would be pretty incredible, seeing as we’re already able to sequence an entire genome for under US$1,000 today.

“[T]he goal of HGP-write is to reduce the costs of engineering and testing large genomes, including a human genome, in cell lines, more than 1,000-fold within 10 years, while developing new technologies and an ethical framework for genome-scale engineering as well as transformative medical applications,” the researchers wrote in a draft of a press release obtained by The Washington Post  (no official press release has been put out as yet).

To pull this off, the scientists say they’ll attempt to raise US$100 million of private and public funding over the next decade, and collaborate with international groups in order to get it done.

And as cool as that would be, they’ve definitely got their work cut out for them. Although scientists have managed to create synthetic genomes for bacteria the past, writing a complete human DNA code is going to be A LOT harder.

As Bec Crew reported for us back in May, creating a synthetic human genome “means figuring out which chemicals are needed to create the 3 billion bases of DNA that sit inside the 23 pairs of chromosomes found inside every cell nucleus in our body”.

Oh, and then they’re going to have to work out where all those chemicals go, put them together in lab in the right order, and then arrange them so that they can direct a cell to stay alive.

The good news is that this crazily ambitious project could teach us a whole lot about our biology and disease. But, as someone on Facebook is bound to point out to you today, it could also help scientists get one step closer to creating ‘designer babies’.

The concern is that this kind of research could teach us more about how to engineer humans that are resistant to disease, or are exceptionally strong or intelligent. While it’s actually not as simple as programming whatever traits we want, it’s definitely something we’d be closer to after this project.

To be very clear, that isn’t anywhere near the intention of this project. The researchers state outright that their project will end in the petri dish, and they have no intention of keeping any of the human genome cell lines alive.

But critics are saying that the problem is that the proposal laid out in Science still really doesn’t deal with the ethical concerns that it brings up.

The team does write that they “will enable broad public discourse on HGP-write; having such conversations well in advance of project implementation will guide emerging capabilities in science and contribute to societal decision-making”, though they don’t really outline exactly what questions those discussions will involve.

There are existing stem cell research guidelines that will apply to their research, but because this is such a new undertaking, the researchers will have the responsibility of creating many new rules as they go.

“Before launching into such a momentous project, questions need to be asked,” including whether it should even occur, Stanford University bioengineer Drew Endy told MIT Technology Review. “The authors fail to pose these essential questions. In fact, in their proposal, they fail to pose any questions.”

But for all those ethical concerns, the undeniable truth is that this project is probably going to benefit all of us, and our children, in ways we can’t even imagine.

“This is as bold an aim as the original human genome project and the authors of this Science paper acknowledge that their new aim will be met with similar controversy as the original HGP had to contend with,” synthetic biologist John Ward, from University College London, told the Genetic Expert News Service via email.

“But its now well accepted that the original HGP opened up the possibility and increasingly, the reality, for new medical treatments in human genetic diseases and cancer and we will be reaping the benefits of this for decades to come,” he added.

Talking about such an ambitious program again should be incredibly exciting, but as much as we love to see science advance our understanding of biology to all new heights, projects like this need to come with the appropriate level of ethical discussion – if only for the fact that without upfront, transparent discussion, the public is never going to trust what’s going on.

And in a world of misinformation, anti-vaxxers, and climate change denial, the last thing we need is to give people a reason to be wary of science.

Let’s do this, but let’s do it right.


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