We Will Replicate You Wholesale:
Envisioning the Human Genome Project, Part 2
By Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.
Leading scientists, biotechnology entrepreneurs and influencers met last week to discuss a possible second phase of the Human Genome Project (1). The first phase involved the physical mapping and determination of the DNA nucleotide base sequence of the entire human genome. The possible second phase would involve improving the capacity to synthesize DNA.
The New York Times reported the meeting was private and attendees were requested to refrain from contacting the news media or posting on Twitter during the event. These restrictions produced sharp criticism from scientists objecting to holding discussions with such enormous ramifications behind closed doors (2). However, Dr. George Church suggested that the critics were inaccurately representing the aims of the conference and organizers, including Dr. Church, consider the ethical issues already addressed sufficiently. In addition, Dr. Church explained the meeting was closed to news media and attendee communications were restricted because the organizers had submitted a paper to a scientific journal. Many journals bar the public release of information until it has been published.
Notwithstanding the feelings among the conference organizers the ethical issues were covered, a discrete, invitation-only get-together may have reflected the fact that original title and goals for the conference were extremely provocative; the Human Genome Project 2 (HGP2) would seek to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line. Both the conference title and the goals were re-worked into something less audacious before the actual meeting was held. Misunderstanding or not, the battle is joined.
Part of the intent of the conference was to outline strategies to improve DNA synthesis technology. Creating entire synthetic genomes will require the production of large, high quality (i.e. correct sequence) DNA molecules at affordable costs. For the moment, dreams of synthetic genomes are limited by DNA fabrication capacities. However, the original Human Genome Project faced daunting technical obstacles which were overcome or circumvented.
If creating artificial human genomes is on the back burner, what will they do? Maybe the work of Dr. J. Craig Venter offers a model (3). Dr. Venter and associates created a synthetic bacterium with the possibly minimal size genome necessary to allow independent growth in culture. Seeking to reduce life to its functional limits, Dr. Venter’s group may be on a fast track to the full synthesis of a working genome from scratch that could provide an ideal platform for genetic engineering purpose-built artificial microbes (4). Perhaps the blueprints for human organs will be cobbled together and placed in animals modified to eliminate endogenous viruses (5). That might create an ideal source of organs that could be safely transplanted into humans.
Should limits once again quickly become milestones, HGP2 may take us to the point where chemically synthesizing a human genome from scratch is feasible. If Dr. Venter and the original Human Genome Project taught us anything it is that technology can advance with astonishing speed (6). Dr. Church noted in his book with Ed Regis that objections to new technologies peak as it is poised to spread, but doesn’t yet work well. Once the technical bugs are worked out, the moral high ground can invert (7). If and when science enables human entities to be replicated wholesale the groundswell he anticipates may turn out to be an earthquake.
(1) A. Pollack. 2016. Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome. The New York Times, 13 May 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/14/science/synthetic-human-genome.html?src=me
(2) D. Endy and L. Zoloth. 2016. Should We Synthesize a Human Genome? Cosmos, 12 May 2016. https://cosmosmagazine.com/society/should-we-synthesise-human-genome
(3) E. Callaway. 2016. Minimal Cell Raises Stakes in Race to Harness Synthetic Life. Nature, 24 March 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/minimal-cell-raises-stakes-in-race-to-harness-synthetic-life-1.19633
(4) M. Eisenstein. 2016. Living Factories of the Future. Nature, 16 March 2016. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v531/n7594/full/531401a.html
(5) S. Reardon. 2015. Gene Editing Record Smashed in Pigs. Nature, 6 October 2015. http://www.nature.com/news/gene-editing-record-smashed-in-pigs-1.18525
(6) R. Preston. The Genome Warrior. The New Yorker, 12 June 2000. http://www.mindfully.org/GE/Venter-Genome-Warrior12jun00.htm
(7) G. Church and E. Regis. 2012. Regenesis – How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. Basic Books, New York, NY. (p. 85)
Also of interest on JayVay and The Center for Bad Ideas