Back in May, nearly 150 scientists held a secret meeting at Harvard University to discuss a plan to craft synthetic human genomes. Now, amid much criticism, the team has published its proposal in Thursday's issue of Science.
The proposal reveals the launch of a project that hopes to decrease the cost of synthetic genomes, which could allow technicians to grow human organs for transplantation at a much lower cost than current transplants.
In addition, the proposal reveals a breakthrough in RNA editing, a molecule closely related to DNA and integral for the synthesis of human genetic code.
The team hopes to eventually create a synthetic genome project on the same scale as the Human Genome Project (HGP) seen in the 1990s, which was responsible for the sequencing of the first human genomes. However, the new project, dubbed the "Genome Project-write," will be "writing" genetic codes instead of "reading" them.
"[T]he goal of HGP-write is to reduce the costs of engineering and testing large genomes, including a human genome, in cell lines, more than 1,000-fold within ten years, while developing new technologies and an ethical framework for genome-scale engineering as well as transformative medical applications," the group said.
Now that the plan is out in the open, detractors are speaking up, including Drew Endy, an associate professor of bioengineering who was critical of the secret meeting in addition to the new proposal.
"Do we wish to be operating in a world where people are capable of organizing themselves to make human genomes?" he said. "Should we pause and reflect on that question before we launch into doing it?"
"They're talking about making real the capacity to make the thing that defines humanity - the human genome," he added.
George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School and a lead organizer of the new research, assures that nine of the participants in the meeting were experts in the ethical, legal and social implications of genetic research and are paying close attention to their plan.
"Even when we identify something that we do not want, we need to think deeply about how to prevent it - effective surveillance, deterrents and consequences," Church said.
The proposal was published in the June 2 issue of Science.