If a synthetic human genome sounds like something out of science fiction, you aren’t paying close enough attention.
In fact, scientists met on May 10 at Harvard University to discuss just that. In a closed door secret meeting, 150 people discussed what it would take to completely fabricate the human genome using chemicals to synthetically manufacture DNA.
The prospect of scientists being at the cusp of creating a synthetic human genome is stoking both curiosity and concern among scientists, reports the New York Times. So much concern, in fact, that the attendees of last Tuesday’s meeting were expressly told not to talk to the media about the discussion or even post to social media for the duration of the meeting.
If scientists are able to successfully create a synthetic human genome, the scientific implications would be enormous. Theoretically, it would allow human beings to be created in the lab, without the need for biological parents. It may even mean that “biology” would cease to be “biology” in certain cases.
Can you consider something biological if it’s synthetic in its entirety?
Project organizers said that the concept of fabricating an entire synthetic human genome is still in the “idea phase,” and that the meeting also involved efforts to “improve DNA synthesis in general.” These words, combined with the clandestine nature of the meeting, however, did little to quell ethical concerns.
The organizers of the synthetic human genome project said that its scientific payoff potential is huge, and that it is a logical follow-up to the original Human Genome Project. In the original project, however, the goal was to read the chemical sequence of the human genome (nearly 3 billion chemical letters make up a human DNA blueprint); this new project would not involve reading at all. Rather, the newly proposed project would involve writing the human genome in its entirety. This would reportedly be accomplished by “synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals.”
Despite assurances from project organizers regarding the benign nature of the proposed project, it has raised innumerable ethical red flags. If scientists perfect the ability to create a synthetic human genome, they could theoretically do almost anything. They could possibly create super soldiers, or a “master race,” or eliminate certain traits, or add them. They could even, plausibly, create synthetic copies of biological humans by synthetically copying an individual’s natural, biological human genome.
Bioengineer Drew Endy of Stanford asked some tough questions in a recent essay.
“Would it be O.K., for example, to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome? If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?”
Dr. Endy declined to attend the Harvard meeting, even though he said he had been invited to discuss the potential of creating a synthetic human genome or genomes. According to the scientist, he didn’t feel that enough people had been invited and he also questioned the amount of consideration the project organizers had given to the “ethical implications of the work”.
Harvard Medical School professor of genetics George Church says that there’s been some confusion as to the nature of the project. According to Church, the project isn’t about creating entire human beings, just cells. He further elaborated that the project would involve much more than simply creating synthetic human genomes. The official plan is to be able to create synthetic DNA in general, which means that the technology could theoretically be applied to any organism with DNA. Scientists reportedly hope to be able to create a completely synthetic human genome in roughly 10 years.
Do you think that learning how to create a synthetic human genome is the next logical step to follow the Human Genome Project? Is it ethical to pursue science to such an extreme end, or do we have to draw the line somewhere? Do you believe that scientists truly intend to stop at creating human cells should they achieve the ability to create an synthetic human genome in its entirety?