Brain and Body

Scientists Announce Controversial Plan to Create Synthetic Human Genomes in Lab

June 3, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Photo credit: Andy Leppard/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Following their secret meeting at Harvard.

Last month, 130 scientists had a secret meeting at Harvard Medical School to discuss the idea of building an entirely synthetic human genome in a lab. Barring journalists from the meeting was met with criticism, but the researchers have now published an outline of their proposal in the journal Science.

The aim of the project, dubbed the Human Genome Project-write, is to create a synthetic human genome within the next 10 years, meaning the scientists will try to write a new DNA code for human life from scratch.

The undertaking could help us better understand human biology and disease, and could also chop down the cost of genetic sequencing — potentially dropping the price 1,000-fold over the next decade. Considering we’re already able to sequence an entire genome for under US$1,000 today, the prospect of seeing such a drastic price drop in the next 10 years is definitely exciting.

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"[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.

The scientists aren’t setting themselves up with an easy task. Creating a synthetic human genome requires “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,” as Bec Crew reports for ScienceAlert.

Of course, the ethics behind the project have stirred up controversy, with some arguing that this will bring scientists closer to creating “designer babies.” With a deeper understanding of the human genome, the concern is that researchers will be able to engineer humans with specific reprogrammed traits, like exceptionally intelligent, athletic, or disease-resistant.

However, anticipating this kind of backlash, the researchers already stated outright that their project will take place in a petri dish and end in one — they don’t intend to keep the genome cell lines alive.

In the Science report, the researchers also 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.”

Despite the ethical concerns that need to be smoothed out, there’s a lot of good that could come from the project. The paper outlines a number of ways cheaper engineering could benefit humanity: cost-efficient vaccines, growing transplantable human organs, cancer resistance, and engineering immunity to viruses, to name a few.

"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 Science Media Centre.

"But it’s 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.”

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