Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Login
Advanced Search

Search for
BioNews

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook


Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis: The Who, the What, the Why and the How


 

Scientists hold 'secret' meeting on creating synthetic human genome

23 May 2016

By Arit Udoh

Appeared in BioNews 852

A group of scientists has been criticised for holding a high-level, behind-closed-doors meeting to discuss a project to synthesise a complete human genome within ten years.

The meeting took place at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and drew around 150 attendees including scientists, lawyers, and government representatives, who were reportedly told not to speak to the press or post details of the meeting on social media.

George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, and one of the event's organisers told the Washington Post that 'there was nothing secret or private about' the meeting. However, the Washington Post also reported that 'the organizers decided to keep the event private, Church said' after a peer-reviewed article due to appear at the same time as the meeting was not published as expected. They did not want to be accused of 'science by press release', Professor Church explained.

Professor Church confirmed to the newspaper that the project discussed at the meeting involved going beyond 'reading' the sequence of the three billion letters that make up the human DNA, to actively 'writing it', thereby artificially creating a complete human genome.

Drew Endy, associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, and Laurie Zoloth, professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University, brought the meeting to wider attention by publishing a comment piece on the Cosmos website in which they raised concerns about the secrecy of the meeting and the ethical implications of the project.

'In a world where human reproduction has already become a competitive marketplace, with eggs, sperm and embryos carrying a price, it is easy to make up far stranger uses of human genome synthesis capacities,' they write, before adding that 'discussions to synthesise, for the first time, a human genome, should not occur in closed rooms'.

Professor Church told the New York Times that Dr Endy and Professor Zoloth 'were painting a picture which [does not] represent the project'. He said that the project was initially called HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project (where HGP refers to the Human Genome Project) and that the goal was to synthesise cells rather than people. Furthermore the project would not be restricted to human genomes. It would aim to improve DNA synthesis techniques in various animals, plants and microbes.

Current DNA synthesis techniques are quite error-prone. The New York Times reports that scientists are only able to reliably make DNA strands no longer than 200 base-pairs. Although strands of this length can be spliced together to create longer sections, an entire human genome is three billion base-pairs long and so its synthesis presents as a major challenge to researchers.

Professor Church said that the project did not yet have funding, although some companies and organisations had already expressed interest in contributing.

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

08 May 2017 - by Annabel Slater 
Human DNA could be artificially synthesised in around five years or less, according to one of the organisers behind the Genome Project-write plan...
30 January 2017 - by Dr James Heather 
Scientists have developed bacteria which can live and grow with DNA containing extra 'letters'...
16 January 2017 - by Annabel Slater 
Three US experts say public conversation should begin now on the ethical challenges raised by a new fertility technology that could reprogram any human cell into eggs and sperm...
09 January 2017 - by Paul Waldron 
Researchers in the US and China have developed a 'synthetic stem cell' that can repair tissue damaged by a heart attack...
06 June 2016 - by Rebecca Carr 
A group of 25 scientists have proposed an ambitious plan to create a synthetic human genome from scratch...

04 April 2016 - by James Brooks 
Scientists have designed and created a functional, self-replicating cell containing only 473 genes – the smallest genome of any organism to be grown in a lab...
26 October 2015 - by Dr Indrayani Ghangrekar 
'The future of humanity is at stake tonight,' said one of the panel members prior to the Royal Institution's debate on the future of synthetic biology. There's probably some truth to that...
21 September 2015 - by Dr Ross Cloney 
The key question of the 21st century may turn out to be: 'Who are we and what will we become?' This question and the implications of its potential answers are explored in 'FutureProofing: Life', which sets out to understand the field of synthetic biology...
31 March 2014 - by Rhys Baker 
The world's first fully-functional synthetic yeast chromosome has been created in an international seven-year effort...

HAVE YOUR SAY
Be the first to have your say.

You need to or  to add comments.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions


- click here to enquire about using this story.

Published by the Progress Educational Trust

CROSSING FRONTIERS

Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction

Public Conference
London
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Sue Avery

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Andy Greenfield

Philippa Taylor

Dr César Palacios-González

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross

EARLY BIRD DISCOUNT
if you book now


BOOK HERE

Good Fundraising Code

Become a Friend of PET HERE and give the Progress Educational Trust a regular donation