Earlier this week, over a hundred scientists, lawyers and entrepreneurs gathered to discuss the radical possibility of creating a synthetic human genome. Strangely, journalists were not invited and attendees were told to keep a tight lip. Which, given the weighty subject matter, is obvious cause for concern.
The replicant Pris from Blade Runner. Could synthetic humans be right around the corner?
The idea of creating a synthetic human genome is qualitatively different than gene editing. Instead of scientists patching a gene here and a gene there, they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes. Synthetic genomics, unlike genetic modifications, in that it doesn't use naturally occurring genes. Instead, it relies on the custom-designed base pair series. This opens to the door to a greater array of possibilities, as geneticists wouldn't be bound by the two base pairs produced by nature.
Currently, scientists see synthetic genomics as a way to build novel microbes and animals, but the same principle applies to humans. It thus raises the prospect of custom-designed humans, or even quasi-humans, without any parents. It's a massive bombshell of a topic — one requiring serious rumination and discussion. But for reasons that aren't entirely clear, this futuristic endeavour appears to be getting off on the wrong foot.
As science writer Andrew Pollack reports in the New York Times, the prospect of synthetic human genomes was discussed at a secret meeting held at Harvard Medical School this past Tuesday. Pollack says that those in attendance were told "not to contact the media or to tweet about the meeting."
According to George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard medical school and a key organiser of the proposed project, the whole thing is an unfortunate misunderstanding. Church says the meeting wasn't really about synthetic human genomes, but rather it was about efforts to improve the ability to synthesise long strands of DNA, which geneticists could use to create all manner of animals, plants and microbes. Church was quoted in the NYT as saying: "They're painting a picture which I don't think represents the project. If that were the project, I'd be running away from it."
This is all very interesting because, as Pollack points out, the original name of the project was "HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project." What's more, an invitation to the meeting clearly stated that the primary goal would be "to synthesise a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of ten years." Later, the organisers changed the name of the meeting to "HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells." The reason for the change, they said, was that the original name was meant to be headline-grabbing. Which is a super strange thing to say given that the meeting was closed to the press.
As for why the meeting was held behind closed-doors, Church says it's because his team has submitted a paper to a scientific journal, and they're not supposed to discuss the idea publicly before publication. Again, a very strange excuse; why hold a meeting on such an important topic before the paper gets approved for publication? Wouldn't it have made more sense to hold the meeting after? In fact, the press are often invited to read papers prior to publication under the embargo system. Journalists are already in the habit of keeping quiet as a matter of protocol and journalistic ethics.
As noted, Church hopes to build a complete human genome in a cell line within ten years, which is quite ambitious. The last effort in this regard was Craig Venter's group, who synthesised a simple bacterial cell. But building an artificial human cell, well that's considerably more complex. The ten-year timeline seems unrealistic, but at least it will afford us plenty of time to ruminate on this hugely important prospect.
Indeed, this topic is definitely far from resolved, and we'll be watching this story as it unfolds. In the meantime, I highly encourage you to read Pollack's entire article at the New York Times, and a provocative essay published in Cosmos Magazine about the ethics of synthesising a human genome. Here's a short clip:
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.
Would it be OK, for example, to sequence and then synthesise Einstein's genome? If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?
Taking a step back, just because something becomes possible, how should we approach determining if it is ethical to pursue?
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.
I have reached out to Dr. George Church for comment, along with an attendee of the meeting. We'll update this post should their responses come in.