Scientists Disclose Proposal to Construct Human Genome from Scratch

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Scientists on Thursday formally announced the start of a 10-year project aimed at vastly improving the ability to chemically manufacture DNA, with one of the goals being to synthetically create an entire human genome.

Plans for the project, which slipped out last month, have already set off an ethical debate, because the ability to chemically fabricate the complete set of human chromosomes could theoretically allow the creation of babies without biological parents.

Some critics also objected to the secrecy surrounding a meeting to discuss the project at Harvard Medical School in May. The organizers said they avoided publicity so as to not jeopardize publication of the proposal in a peer reviewed scientific journal.

The publication occurred on Thursday by the journal Science. The authors of the proposal said that the ability to fabricate huge stretches of DNA would allow for numerous scientific and medical advances. It might be possible to make organisms resistant to all viruses, for instance, or make pig organs suitable for transplant into people.

The project, which will be run by a new nonprofit organization called the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology, will seek to raise $100 million this year from public and private sources. Organizers declined to state the ultimate cost of the project, though it could conceivably exceed $1 billion.

Whether the federal government will support the project is still unknown. Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which is the main funder of medical research in the United States, had a tepid response Thursday. Dr. Collins said in a statement that while NIH was interested in encouraging advances in DNA synthesis, it “has not considered the time to be right for funding a large-scale, production-oriented” project like the one being proposed.

He added that “whole-genome, whole-organism synthesis projects extend far beyond current scientific capabilities, and immediately raise numerous ethical and philosophical red flags.”

The effort is being called “Human Genome Project–Write,” because it is aimed at writing the DNA of life. The authors of the paper in Science say they do not want to create babies but maintain that focusing on a grand challenge like synthesizing an entire human genome would be the best way to galvanize advances in DNA synthesis that could be used for more practical purposes, such as engineering plants, animals and microbes.

Monday, June 6, 2016 / Vol. 24 / No. 22

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