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Scientists hold 'secret' meeting on creating synthetic human genome

23 May 2016
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.

Scientists spark controversy with secretive meeting about creating synthetic human DNA
The Independent |  23 May 2016
Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome
New York Times |  13 May 2016
Secret Harvard meeting on synthetic human genomes incites ethics debate
Washington Post |  13 May 2016
Should we synthesise a human genome?
Cosmos |  12 May 2016
Why would scientists want to build human genomes from scratch?
New Scientist |  18 May 2016
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