After being shrouded in secrecy, a group of 130 scientists has unveiled a stunningly ambitious plan to create a synthetic human genome. While such an achievement could make it possible to quickly develop vaccines or even grow human organs for transplant, some say the project is fraught with ethical concerns.
The project dubbed the ‘Human Genome Project-Write,’ or ‘HGP-Write,’ was announced June 3 in the journal Science.
The authors, including Harvard University geneticist George Church and Jeff D. Boeke, the founding director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, say in a release that their goal is to “reduce the costs of engineering and testing large genomes…more than 1,000 fold” in order to develop new technologies that could lead to, among other things, revolutionary medical applications. They believe they can achieve their objective within ten years.
The project is partially funded by the giant software company Autodesk.
Some, however, were quick to criticize the plan and the secrecy that surrounded its inception.
“These self-selected scientists and entrepreneurs are launching a corporate-dominated moonshot that could open the door to producing synthetic human beings,” says Marcy Darnovsky, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society, in a statement. “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.”
Church responded to the ethical concerns by denying the project has anything to do with creating synthetic humans, according to a report in The Washington Post. He and his colleagues say that creating a synthetic human genome simply builds on current biomedical technologies already shown to cure illnesses and save lives.
“Genome synthesis is a logical extension of the genetic engineering tools that have been used safely within the biotech industry” for some 40 years, write the authors, “and have provided important societal benefits.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also released a statement raising concerns about the synthetic human genome project.
“NIH has not considered the time to be right for funding a large-scale production-oriented ‘HGP-write’ effort, as is framed in the Science article,” says organization head Francis Collins, who led the groundbreaking Human Genome Project, as reported by the Post. “There are only limited ethical concerns about synthesizing segments of DNA for laboratory experiments. But whole-genome, whole-organism synthesis projects extend far beyond current scientific capabilities, and immediately raise numerous ethical and philosophical red flags.”
But Church insisted to NPR that the aim of the project is to benefit human health — produce cell lines that are resistant to cancer or certain pathogens, for example — not to design new and improved synthetic humans.