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Plan to build synthetic human DNA genome gains momentum

8 May 2017
Appeared in BioNews 899

Human DNA could be artificially synthesised in around five years or less, according to one of the organisers behind the Genome Project-write (GP-write) plan.

Nearly 200 experts in genetics and bioengineering will meet on 9-10 May 2017 at the New York Genome Center to discuss the applications, ethics and logistics of the project, which aims to engineer synthetic genomes and has been outlined as the next stage from the Human Genome Project (HGP).

'HGP allowed us to read the genome, but we still don't completely understand it,' said Nancy Kelley, the coordinator of the upcoming meeting.

The GP-write project will use DNA synthesis and genome editing technologies to engineer major plant and animal genomes. A core activity within the project will be the Human Genome Project-write (HGP-write) which will focus on synthesising human DNA.

HGP-write will include a special focus on the ethical, legal and social implications. Researchers emphasise that synthetic human DNA will be limited to cells and organoids only.

The scientists behind GP-write say it will build understanding of the 'blueprint for life provided by the Human Genome project'.

It is hoped that the project will lead to wider applications and innovation in the field of genetics, including greater understanding of DNA synthesis and assembly, and broader applications for medical testing. One example could be to engineer cells which lack unnecessary genetic material, making them less vulnerable during drug testing.

'Really, a synthetic genome is an engine for learning new information,' said Jef Boeke, a professor of NYU Langone Medical Centre and one of the project's lead scientists. Professor Boeke has been working on a related project, overseeing the production of the artificial yeast genome (see BioNews 748 and 892).

Another primary goal is to reduce the costs of engineering and testing large genomes in cell lines by over 1000-fold within 10 years.

The meeting will build on a previous session in May 2016 (see BioNews 854) which was closed to the public. Following the 2016 meeting, scientists published a paper in Science describing the details of the project, and a white paper which outlined the proposed project timeline and goals.

The organisers plan to launch GP-write with US $100 million of funding from public, private, philanthropic, industry and academic sources, and implement it through the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology, an independent non-profit organisation.

'We have a four- to five-year period where there can be plenty of time for debate... Whenever it's human, everyone has an opinion and wants their voice to be heard. We want to hear what people have to say,' said Professor Boeke.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Firestorm brewing as scientists work to create synthetic human DNA
CNBC |  2 May 2017
Genome Project-write: factsheet
Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology | 
GP-write project: FAQ
Center of Excellence for Bioengineering | 
Scientists get closer to lab-made genome
STAT |  9 March 2017
Tensions flare as scientists go public with plan to build synthetic human DNA
Science Alert |  3 May 2017
Update on upcoming GP-Write meeting in May
Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology | 
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