Geneticists announce plans to create an artificial human genome

A team of scientists including Harvard University geneticist George Church and Jef D. Boeke, the founding director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, have announced a 10-year plan to create a synthetic human genome.

Their proposal, which was outlined Thursday in the journal Science, involves developing their own lab-made version of the entire human genetic code with the hope that their efforts may one day lead to important medical breakthroughs, according to NPR and the New York Times.

Dubbed the Human Genome Project–Write (HGP-Write) project, the goal is to synthesize the complete genome using its chemical components, and make it possible for them to function in actual human cells. Doing so will be no small task, as published reports have indicated that at least $100 million will initially need to be raised to pursue the task of creating the three billion base pairs of DNA required for a human cell to survive and function properly.

“We just had a revolution in our ability to read genomes, [and] the same thing is happening now with writing genomes,” Church told NPR. “We have the ability to synthesize bacterial genomes and we can synthesize parts of human genomes. We would like to be able to scale that up so we can make larger and larger collections of genomes.”

Research could lead to medical breakthroughs, but there are ethical concerns

The proposal, which initially leaked in mid-May, would enable scientists to use produce and use synthetic genomes for a variety of different purposes, including inserting them into stem cells to make them safer when treating diseases, producing cell lines to make new vaccines or drug types or to create “humanized animals” for organ transplantation, according to the Times.

However, the proposal has sparked an ethical debate, raising concerns that the synthetic genomes could be used to create designer babies, or to produce children with no genetic parents. The study authors insist that they harbor no such ambitions, explaining to Science that their goal is to lower the cost of mass-engineering DNA and testing how effective it is in cells. The HGP-write project ”would push current conceptual and technical limits by orders of magnitude,” they wrote.

Those reassurances do little to qualm the fears of experts like Marcy Darnovsky, the head of the Berkeley, California-based Center for Genetics and Society (CGS), who, in a statement, said that “these self-selected scientists and entrepreneurs are launching a corporate-dominated moonshot that could open the door to producing synthetic human beings. They are doing this without the involvement or even the knowledge of the public or civil society, without consultation with other scientists, and in the absence of public policy.”

“The focus on synthesizing the human genome seems in part like a public relations stunt to get multi-billion-dollar range funding… and a lot of media attention,” she added. “Some of the speculative goals of this project sound innocuous or benign. Others would be dangerously unacceptable. There would of course be enormous technical challenges to producing synthetic humans, but it’s clear that no self-appointed group has a warrant to make decisions that could literally reshape the human genome.”

But the scientists behind HGP-Write insist that they are only looking to benefit human health by using the synthesized genome to produce cell lines which, for instance, could be resistant to even impervious to various pathogens or types of cancer. Church told NPR that he and his colleagues are well aware of the ethical issues around their work, and said that such concerns would need to be addresses, but are adamant that they have no intention of using the results of their project to engineer a new-and-improved race of designer humans.

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