MAY 13, 2016 11:50 AM PDT

Scientists Secretly Discuss Creating Synthetic Human Genomes

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch
It was reported today in the New York Times that a private, invitation-only meeting of about 150 scientists was convened at Harvard, ostensibly to discuss synthesizing a human genome from scratch. To be sure, this is still only an idea, but it is already generating a storm of controversy.

The project was considered as a follow-up to the Human Genome Project, and was originally titled HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project. That name has already been changed to “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells” possibly because of the negative feedback being generated.
An essay has already been released in response. “Should we synthesize a human genome?” ask Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University and Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford. They suggest that while techniques for synthesizing DNA need to be improved, the creation of a human genome is an inappropriate goal. They cite harsh backlash against the production of the poliovirus from scratch as an example. Public funding for research on the synthesis of DNA dried up after that occurred.

They also stress that these sorts of ideas should not be discussed and considered behind closed doors. “It is O.K. to have meetings that are private, but it has not been characteristic of the field to have meetings that are secret in addition to being private,” said Dr. Zoloth.

George Church, one of the organizers of the proposed project who is also a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, has said this characterization was a misunderstanding, and that the project was actually more general; it was tasked to improve the ability to synthesize long strands of DNA, which could potentially be applied to various microbes, plants and animals.
Labelled strands of DNA
“They’re painting a picture which I don’t think represents the project,” Dr. Church responded. “If that were the project, I’d be running away from it.” He went on to explain that the secrecy was necessary because the organizers of the project would like to submit a paper about it. The New York Times lists other organizers as Jef Boeke, who is director of the institute for systems genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center, Andrew Hessel, a futurist who works in the bio/nano research group at a Bay Area software company called Autodesk, and Nancy J. Kelley, who works to plan and launch projects.

While scientists can already order strands of synthetic DNA and manipulate DNA in cells, current techniques can make strands of only about 200 base pairs with accuracy and reliability. The cost has decreased dramatically in recent years, however, and some scientists predict that the cost of synthesizing a human genome – about three million base pairs long – could drop from $90 million to around $100,000 in about 20 years.

Sources: New York Times, Cosmos Magazine
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