Start of 10-year project aimed at creating synthetic human genomes announced

A team of American-led scientists and entrepreneurs has declared the start of a decade-long project meant to form synthetic human genomes in a way that may transform biotechnology, but it has many problematic ethical concerns attached to it.

In a paper appeared on Thursday in the journal Science, supporters of the projects said that the ambitious proposal may make it feasible to grow human organs for transplant and boost vaccines development.

But already the idea has sparked criticism because of the likelihood of a day when babies could be created without any biological parents, and also due to the privacy in the case of a recent closed-door subject related meeting.

Individuals supporting it have envisioned a project as valuable as the Human Genome Project, which had drawn and published the full, sequenced human genome in 2003—or the 99.9% that is common in everybody.

Known as the ‘Human Genome Project-write’ or ‘HGP-write’—since synthesizing would lead to ‘writing’ instead of ‘reading’ human genetic code, the project has a target to cut the expense of engineering DNA segments in laboratory.

One of the paper authors, George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, said, “The new goal would be more ambitious and more focused on understanding the practical applications than the original Human Genome Project”.

The supporters of the project said that they were hopeful of launching it in the present year after raising $100 million worldwide from various sources.

No estimations have been provided about total costs. They just mentioned that it would be probably below the Human Genome Project’s $3 billion.

The genetic blueprint of each organism is known as genome. It is the complete set of DNA including the instructions an organism needs to stay alive and thrive.

“A group of American-led scientists and entrepreneurs has announced the start of a 10-year project aimed at creating synthetic human genomes in a move that could revolutionize the field of biotechnology but raises troubling ethical concerns. The ambitious proposal could make it possible to grow human organs for transplant and speed up the development of vaccines, the project backers said in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science,” according to a news report published by PHYS.

But the idea has already sparked criticism due to the potential of one day creating children with no biological parents, and due to the secrecy surrounding a recent closed-door meeting on the subject.

Its proponents envision a project on the same scale as the Human Genome Project, which mapped and published the full, sequenced human genome in 2003—or the 99.9 percent that we all have in common.

Dubbed “Human Genome Project-write” or “HGP-write”—since synthesizing would amount to “writing” rather than “reading” our genetic code—the project aims to reduce the cost of engineering DNA segments in the lab.

According to a story published on the topic by Time, “Last month there were alarming news reports of a “secret meeting” where scientists discussed plans to create a synthetic human genome. These plans have now been confirmed, and the project has been dubbed the “Human Genome Project-Write” (HGP-Write). The project aims to manufacture the entire human genome by adding together chemical nucleotides that form genes.”

The production of synthetic genetic material is not new. The first artificial genes were synthesized in the 1970s and were successfully incorporated into bacteria and other organisms to produce life-saving growth factors, including insulin. What’s new is the ability to synthesize exceedingly long genetic sequences, culminating with the synthesis and transplantation of the entire genome of a bacterium. The genome of this bacterium is one million base pairs long, while the human genome is about 3,000 times longer. Scaling the technology to synthesize the whole human genome will take at least 10 years, likely more.

A report published in NY Times informed, “Some critics also objected to the secrecy surrounding a meeting to discuss the project at Harvard Medical School in May. The organizers said they avoided publicity so as to not jeopardize publication of the proposal in a peer reviewed scientific journal. The publication occurred on Thursday by the journal Science.”

The authors of the proposal said that the ability to fabricate huge stretches of DNA would allow for numerous scientific and medical advances. It might be possible to make organisms resistant to all viruses, for instance, or make pig organs suitable for transplant into people.

The project, which will be run by a new nonprofit organization called the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology, will seek to raise $100 million this year from various public and private sources. Organizers declined to state the ultimate cost of the project, though it could conceivably exceed $1 billion.

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