In what just screams cabal(?), roughly 150 researchers, lawyers, ethicists, engineers and government representatives met last week in a windowless room in Harvard to discuss the future of mankind and its DNA. I wish I was making this up but the human genome and the potential for its (re)building from scratch was the order of the day.
DNA tech is there, now it’s in the hands of 150?
The privilege of attending this meeting came with a number of caveats, but the primary one was that those “allowed” or “invited” to attend had to sign serious non-disclosure agreements. So while I’ll speculate on what was discussed, I truly don’t know anything as those in attendance were specifically banned from speaking to any media outlets and discussing, well, the “discussion.”
This closed door policy had a few invitees speaking out about the conference and publicly talking to their reasons for non-attendance.
Notably, Synthetic biologist Drew Endy of Stanford University, who was invited to attend, declined and when to the press with his concerns. His understanding was that this wasn’t to be a discussion as much as a plan to get people to simply sign off the group’s ideas.
“It became apparent that the event was not about discussing whether to pursue the project, but rather to conscript others,” he told New Scientist. “Should something so monumental be organized and launched in such a fashion?”
“The creation of new human life is one of the last human-associated processes that has not yet been industrialized or fully commodified. It remains an act of faith, joy, and hope,” wrote Endy, a bioengineering professor at Stanford University along with his colleague Laurie Zoloth, a medical ethics professor at Northwestern University in criticizing the arrogance of the meeting.
Hence, the conspiracy theories
The meeting, held at Harvard Medical School in Boston, was convened to discuss the synthesizing of the human genome from scratch. While that may take a decade or more, the fact that it could be done in a decade, presumably, was the reason this meeting was convened. While NASA would like to put “a man” on Mars in the 2030s, Elon Musk wants to land a rocket there next year. This is the speed at which we live and technology advances. It’s not simply Moore’s law that determines when you buy a new laptop, it’s an age where technology which was deemed impractical two years ago becomes both usable and economical in five years.
What frightens many is that it’s not simply a conversation of building the human genome itself but the fact that building the “perfect human” is also on the table.
“For example, could scientists synthesize a modified human genome that is resistant to all natural viruses?” asked Zoloth and Endy.
“They likely could, for purely beneficial purposes, but what if others then sought to synthesise modified viruses that overcame such resistance? Might doing so start a genome-engineering arms race?,” the two wrote.
One of the organizers of the meeting was Harvard biologist George Church. Church, like the church, is not without his controversies and has spoken to his desire to bring back the woolly mammoth as well as introducing edited pig genes for human transplant.
Church maintains that there was nothing secret about the meeting but rather simply in line with the upcoming publication of a journal piece that doesn’t allow for conversation ahead of going to press. He maintains that this particular major scientific journal insists on peer-review rather than “science by press release” according to statements he made to the Washington Post.
“It wasn’t secret. There was nothing secret or private about it,” said Church in conversation with the Washington Post.
The good doctor also told the WP that the group was not speaking to the creation of humans simply a conversation about the goal that “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”
I don’t, per se, have a problem with my food be genetically engineered but there exists an ethical question about gene modification in humans that is not being explored nearly as quickly as gene modification techniques are becoming affordable.
Quite simply, scientists are already hard at work on modifying the human genome but gene editing is limited. Given a synthetic human genome in its entirety presents a new opportunity to truly “play God.” While that argument and discussion is indeed happening, it’s happening behind closed doors and veiled in non-disclosure agreements.