Nearly 150 scientists held a closed-door meeting at Harvard University Medical School Tuesday to discuss the potential creation of a synthetic human genome, a process that would use chemicals to create all of the DNA contained in human chromosomes. The process is both promising and concerning due to the potential for the genome to be used to clone humans without biological parents.
Although the project is still in the idea phase, the team hopes that it will lead to beneficial scientific advancements and act as a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project that aimed to read the sequence of the 3 billion letters in the DNA blueprint that guides human life.
Unlike genetic modification, synthetic genomics does not use naturally occurring genes, instead relying on custom-designed base pair series', meaning that geneticists wouldn't be limited to the two base pairs in nature and thus have more possibilities to work with.
Despite the potential scientific benefits of a synthetic human genome, many in the community are wary of such a project.
"Would it be O.K., for example, to sequence and then synthesize Einstein's genome?" Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford, and Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, said in an essay that criticized the project. "If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?"
Endy was invited to the meeting but chose not to attend due to his belief that not enough people were invited and his perceived lack of thought given to the ethical implications of the project.
"Given that human genome synthesis is a technology that can completely redefine the core of what now joins all of humanity together as a species, we argue that discussions of making such capacities real, like today's Harvard conference, should not take place without open and advance consideration of whether it is morally right to proceed," the essay continues.
Others, such as Jeremy Misnhull - who was also invited to the meeting but did not attend - chief executive of DNA2.0, a DNA synthesis company, have doubts over whether a synthetic human genome would be worth it.
"Our ability to understand what to build is so far behind what we can build," he said. "I just don't think that being able to make more and more and more and cheaper and cheaper and cheaper is going to get us the understanding we need."