Tuesday, May 17, 2016 9:22 pm
A “secret” meeting held at Harvard University last week to discuss the possibility of creating an entirely synthetic human genome in 10 years using simple chemicals has triggered debate in the life sciences community.
The invite-only meeting on May 10 had over 130 participants from many countries, including biologists, ethicists, engineers, plus representatives from industry, law and government, who were asked neither to contact media nor to post on Twitter.
The topic was reportedly about a follow-up to the 13-year, 3-billion-U.S.-dollar Human Genome Project, which saw thousands of scientists around the world to “read” the sequence of the human genome.
But now, organizers of the “hush-hush” meeting considered going further to “write” it, that is, to “synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”
One of the invited researchers, Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford University, who deliberately did not attend the closed-door meeting, sounded the alarm immediately in an article co-authored with Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University.
“In a world where human reproduction has already become a competitive marketplace, with eggs, sperm and embryos carrying a price, it is straightforward to brainstorm various uses of human genome synthesis capacities,” Endy and Zoloth wrote.
“For example, would it be OK to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome? If so how many Einstein genomes would it be OK to make and install in cells, and who would get to make and control these cells?” they asked.
The two scientists argued that such discussions should not take place without open and advance consideration of whether and under what circumstances it is morally right to proceed.
The New York Times, the first U.S. newspaper to report the Harvard meeting, even claimed that such a technique could make it possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.
In response, Harvard geneticist George Church and other organizers of the meeting issued a consensus statement, stating that they were to “discuss the concept of an international project focused on new technology for constructing and testing large genomes in cells as the next chapter in our understanding of the blueprint of life.”
Church himself also clarified to the New York Times that the proposed project was not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genomes. Synthesising a human genome has become increasingly feasible in recent years. The cost of assembling the genetic material encoding genes has decreased to just three cents per base pair from four dollars in 2003, said Endy and Zoloth.
“The conference was one of a series of such scientific discussions amongst the community that have been unfolding over the past several years,” said the statement.
“As in the past, we have planned to post a meeting report swiftly, in this case, a peer-reviewed paper on the concept of testing large genomes in cells, and videos of the talks to catalyze even broader community discussion.”
The organizers said the video will be released when the peer-reviewed paper is published in a scientific journal, the name of which was not revealed.
“We don’t feel we have news to report until we publish the paper and talks,” noted the statement.
Church himself also clarified to the New York Times that the proposed project was not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genomes.
Synthesizing a human genome has become increasingly feasible in recent years. The cost of assembling the genetic material encoding genes has decreased to just three cents per base pair from four dollars in 2003, said Endy and Zoloth.
With 3 billion base pairs, building a human genome would cost 90 million dollars today, versus 12 billion dollars in 2003, and Endy and Zoloth predicted that at this rate, the figure could reach 100,000 dollars in 20 years.
Actually, genome research pioneer Craig Venter had succeeded in synthesizing the genome of a bacteria known as Mycoplasma mycoides, which consists of 1.08 million base pairs, in 2010.
In 2014, an international team of scientists, led by Jef Boeke of the Langone Medical Centre at New York University, achieved another milestone by synthesizing one of the 16 chromosomes for yeast.
So if the idea of synthesizing a human genome becomes a reality, what does it mean for us?
The answer from Karmella Haynes, assistant professor at Arizona State University, was that such an achievement “would advance human understanding of life in an enriching, humbling, and positive way.”
“On the technical side, synthesized human genomes can provide test systems to model disease so that medical research can be done without animal models,” Haynes said.
Kris Saha, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison held a similar view.
“The ability to write the genome, essentially by typing it into a computer, would be revolutionary,” Saha said.
“If it were possible, it can be used for many applications — from engineering microbes that can produce industrially relevant chemical and biological compounds to generating engineered human cells for therapeutic applications, such as for treating cancer and tissue regeneration.”
There is one thing experts can be certain: creating a human genome from scratch, even it’s done in 10 years, would still be far removed from making a synthetic human.
Reported by Xinhua