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Scientists present plan to build a human genome

6 June 2016
Appeared in BioNews 854

A group of 25 scientists have proposed an ambitious plan to create a synthetic human genome from scratch.

The proposals, formally unveiled in Science last week, were first aired at a 'secret' meeting attended by 150 scientists last month (see BioNews 852).

Known as the Human Genome Project–Write (HGP-write), it will require billions of dollars in technological development and is expected to take around ten years to complete.

'Although sequencing, analysing, and editing DNA continue to advance at breakneck pace, the capability to construct DNA sequences in cells is mostly limited to a small number of short segments, restricting the ability to manipulate and understand biological systems. Further understanding of genetic blueprints could come from construction of large, gigabase (Gb)–sized animal and plant genomes, including the human genome, which would in turn drive development of tools and methods to facilitate large-scale synthesis and editing of genomes. To this end, we propose the Human Genome Project–Write (HGP-write),' the group wrote in Science.

The scientists – who include George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School – first need to raise $100 million in support from public, private, philanthropic, industry and academic sources, and they say they are looking for ways to start the project with public support and within an ethical and legal framework.

The proposals are likely to raise concerns regarding the extent to which human life should be engineered. Synthesising the human genome could, for example, make it possible to create humans who lack biological parents, or to create humans with genetic enhancements.

The scientists dismiss these concerns. They write that, if successful, potential applications of the research could include 'growing transplantable human organs, engineering immunity to viruses in cell lines via genome-wide recoding, engineering cancer resistance into new therapeutic cell lines, and accelerating high-productivity, cost-efficient vaccine and pharmaceutical development using human cells and organoids'.

Professor Paul Freemont, co-director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the project, told Reuters: 'It will also provide technologies for advanced gene therapy and lead to a much greater understanding of how the genome is organised and how in disease cells this becomes altered.'

Further challenges to genome writing – such as the cost of DNA synthesis – will need to be resolved before the project can get off the ground. Speaking to Nature News, Dr Tom Ellis, a synthetic biologist at Imperial College London, argued that there are other challenges ahead for the project. 'There are no methods to insert very large pieces of DNA into a mammalian cell and make them function normally, and researchers have little clue how to design a complex genome that has anything more than trivial changes to an existing one.'

Others have raised the concern that commercial bodies may seek to take ownership of the project, which might limit access to the benefits of the research results.

Plan to synthesize human genome elicits mixed response
Nature News |  2 June 2016
Scientists launch proposal to create synthetic human genome
The Guardian |  2 June 2016
Scientists propose project to build synthetic human genome
Reuters |  2 June 2016
The Genome Project–Write
Science |  2 June 2016
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