Just weeks after a secretive meeting, a group of 25 scientists have proposed a project to create a synthetic human genome, or genetic blueprint. Sharp criticism followed the announcement from critics who say they are dodging the big ethical questions such a step raises.
Last month, 130 scientists, entrepreneurs, and policy leaders held an invitation-only, closed-door meeting at Harvard University, to discuss what could potentially lead to the creation of humans without biological parents (made-to-order human beings with special genetic enhancements).
Now, after a burst of criticism over the secrecy of the effort, the group has published their idea in the journal, Science. In their paper, they point out the potential applications from a synthetic human genome, which include growing transplantable human organs, engineering immunity to viruses, engineering cancer resistance, and accelerating vaccine and drug development using human cells and organs.
The project is called the “Human Genome Project (HGP)–Write,” with the main aim to build a synthetic genome and test it in cells in the laboratory within 10 years. The synthetic genome would involve using chemicals to create the DNA present in human chromosomes. The scientists have acknowledged that their idea is controversial and have said they would seek public involvement and the consideration of ethical, legal and social implications.
Farren Isaacs of Yale University, another author of the paper, told reporters:
“It’s important to engage legal and ethical scholars and society at large to really help shape the goals as well as communicate the reasons that we’re launching this project.”
Scientists are hoping that the new project will cut the cost of engineering and testing big genomes by more than a thousand-fold in 10 years. This would allow scientists to study “millions of genomes in dozens of cell types” to look for the effects of mutation, George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and an organizer of the proposed project said.
There are some researchers that believe the project should be delayed until it can win broader support for the idea of synthesizing a human genome. Drew Endy, a synthetic biologist from Stanford University in California, and religious scholar Laurie Zoloth, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, wrote in an email that the HGP-write team has not properly justified their aims, and that the project should be abandoned, writing:
“We are still waiting for a serious public debate with participation from a broad range of people.”
Tom Ellis, a synthetic biologist at Imperial College London who attended the secretive meeting, is among many that worry a centralized project that explicitly focuses on building a synthetic version of a human genome (rather than many kinds of genomes) may be needlessly narrowing the products of the effort.
While in the paper the authors remain silent on the impending ethical debate, Endy wrote:
“Before launching into such a momentous project, questions need to be asked.
“The authors fail to pose these essential questions. In fact, in their proposal, they fail to pose any questions.”
It’s not hard to see where things may head. Church hasn’t been shy about coming out in favor of genetically engineered people, which includes the use of gene editing to repair particular genes before birth.
In fact, Church has answered most of the big questions in his book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, which describes the climax of synthetic biology as the production of humans with lab-fabricated genomes that are immune to all viruses.
Questions were always going to be asked, when you purposefully do not invite the media giving two contradictory reasons:
- “We intentionally did not invite the media, because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted as the discussions evolve.”
- The journal who published the paper wanted more information about the ethical, social, and legal components of synthesizing genomes, therefore placing an embargo.
Very basic ethical questions need to be asked, for example, whether developing the ability to make human genomes is a good idea. Constructing a genome, even if it’s just in a cell, implies a level of power and control that must be carefully and fully debated.
There has been no real transparency with this, and to be honest with Church at the helm I am not sure if the aim isn’t to create “genetically engineered people.” There are some really good reasons to conduct this project, however there are just as many ethical reasons not to.