Scientists have confirmed reports that they are working on plans to be able to synthetically produce the entire human genome, in a project named Human Genome Project-Write (HGP-Write), as Valuewalk speculated / reported on May 18th.
Human genome creation – Science fiction becoming science reality?
The possibility of creating living humans in the science lab has intrigued many people for years. Now it looks like we are getting closer, but don’t expect to see this technology coming to complete fruition any time soon.
A ‘secret’ meeting at Harvard University a couple of weeks ago has led to the announcement in the journal Science journal of HGP-Write. The project has the stated ambition of creating the entire human genome (the complete set of DNA), manufactured by combining chemical nucleotides (which are the building blocks of genes), and doing it in a much more cost efficient manner than previously thought possible.
“The 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,” stated the group in a draft news announcement seen by The Washington Post.
Artificial genes are not a new creation, as far back as the 1970s scientists built the yeast gene, and were also able to add synthetic genes to bacteria or other organisms to encourage the formation of desired products, most notably insulin. However, where things have moved forward is the ability to synthetically produce much, much longer genetic sequences to the point where the entire bacteria itself can actually be produced. The human genome is roughly three billion base pairs long. We are not at this stage yet, but in the next decade it is a theoretic possibility.
Even when this point is reached, it does not necessarily mean that we can manufacture human beings, there are other factors required. Firstly, the genes cannot just be chucked together, they need to be ordered properly, and a number of complimentary enzymes and proteins need to be included. There is little confidence that the production of complex life forms like a human life can actually be a reality, even with the complete genome structure.
More than the creation of humans from scratch, which brings with no shortage of ethical questions, potential benefits of this ‘gene-writing’ include being able alter stem cells so that they can be more safely used to treat disease. Additionally it can help with manufacturing new vaccines, can be used to alter cells to make them resistant to certain diseases like cancer, or even to grow human organs in other animals.
The publication of these details comes on the back of much criticism of the closed-door meeting between roughly 130 scientists, policy advisors, lawyers, ethicists and investors. The discussion was an ‘invite only’ event that once again had no shortage of outspoken opposition.
So if creating a new synthetic human is still a long way off, what about genetically modifying living humans? That is actually surprisingly easy due to CRISPR-cas9 technology. Changes can be made to people’s genetic make-up that will then be inherited by offspring.
Ignoring the potential for bioterrorism, there are still many ethical considerations to be made before we start playing with our genes.
Marcy Darnovsky, who leads Center for Genetics and Society, stated, “The worry is that we’re going to be synthesizing entire optimized human genomes — manufacturing chromosomes that could be used ultimately to produce synthetic human beings that they see as improved models.”
The concern is the danger of ‘designer babies’, offspring with predetermined desirable traits like being tall, smart, good memory etc. This has the potential to lead to some sort of dystopian future with a kind of ‘super race’. “That’s a goal that many, many people think is something we should not do and in fact that it should be a no-go zone,” Darnovsky added.
Synthetic humans not the plan
However, the group have clearly said that while working towards having the ability to do just that, creating new people is not the goal, as confirmed by Jef Boeke, a member of the group and a New York University Langone Medical Center geneticist, “That’s [designer babies] only a concern if you’re talking about making people, and we’re not talking about doing that,”
The head of he National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, saw other benefits of the ground breaking research intended, “The ability to synthesize long stretches of DNA would clearly provide us with an experimental tool that would be quite valuable for understanding how life works and how disease occurs.”
We are in a brave new world. Technology’s advances provide many benefits for all, but definite ethical issues are raised. Understanding and knowledge are rarely bad in themselves, but in the wrong hands, who knows what dark places human’s may find themselves in the future.