The Genomic Gutenberg Project – Writing the Living Novels of the Future

The Genomic Gutenberg Project – Writing the Living Novels of the Future

by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.

Koheleth SeqDecoding the over 3 billion DNA base pairs comprising the human genome was a monumental scientific/engineering achievement.  Learning to read genomes was only the beginning and leading scientists propose it is time to develop the capacity to literally write them (1).  Pushing far beyond today’s limits The Human Genome Project-Write will develop the ways and means to manufacture large DNA molecules and edit genomes with them.  One of the ultimate goals is to synthesize the complete genetic code of any organism, including humans.  There seems little doubt the spin-off technologies from the project will be transformative and will almost certainly foster an avalanche of new discoveries in many fields.

It is impossible to envision the full implications of this audacious proposal, but many scientists are in a total tizzy over the amazing prospects.  However, past experience with emerging technologies reminds us there is no certainty every grand vision will come to pass or each idea proposed will be achievable.  Many years ago futurists speculated every home would have mini atomic reactors to generate power and nuclear-fueled vacuum cleaners to help with the housework (2, 3).  Today’s reality – utility companies determined to strangle the rooftop solar industry.  Ideas like deleting potentially dangerous prions (1) seem solid at first glance, but no one knows what function(s) are performed by these genes.  Could eliminating selfish DNA elements (1) change the ways genes are grouped and controlled in living cells and accidentally promote cancer induction (4)?  The unknowns are numerous, but potential complications do not constitute a compelling case to halt the new research initiative.  On the contrary, investigating and understanding them will improve understanding of basic cell biology which might ultimately yield important benefits for human health and wellbeing.

Controversy has been a feature of genomic synthesis work since viral chromosome construction projects generated concerns years ago (5, 6).  Techniques have advanced enormously since the first small viral genomes were assembled, suggesting how fast Shakes writercapabilities might evolve if The Human Genome Project-Write is approved (7).  However, a public storm erupted before the proposal had been outlined (8) with thorny ethical questions and troubling scenarios cropping up immediately (8, 9).  Would someone synthesize Einstein’s genome?  How would such a thing be used?  Extrapolating further, might researchers attempt to stitch together an artificially reconstituted Albert Einstein?  In fairness, no one has proposed anything that extreme.  In addition, proposals along these lines appear ill-considered.  Human beings may not be a true tabula rasa at birth, but environment, education, culture and life experience all play critical roles in development.  It might be technically feasible to duplicate genomes, but it still may never be possible to reproduce persons.  Fiction readers may remember how the nature-nurture idea was explored by Ira Levin in The Boys from Brazil(10).

While many ethical and safety issues concerns raised over The Human Genome Project-Write are hypothetical, it is important to recognize the era of human-constructed life has begun.  Despite daunting technical obstacles, scientists have created and cultured the first artificial bacteria (11).  This synthetic life form has no living analogs, no true evolutionary kin and no known natural ecological niche, but Dr. Venter’s genomic creative writing group has proven it is possible to compose a total biologic fiction that actually works.  They built the thing, but the scientist/creators are not omniscient and do not know what functions are performed by about one third of the genes in their handiwork (11).  Having raced into unknown territory they must now wait to see if these new living fabrications adhere to their own private, unpredictable rules.  One book of life has been re-written and there is something new under the sun.  The problem is no one is quite sure what this thing will do.

The Human Genome Project-Write might be the 21st century genetic equivalent of invention of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg.  The groundbreaking accomplishments of today only hint at the forthcoming not-of-this-natural-world fictions when future scientific Shakespeares are empowered to publish their own living novels.

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(1)    J. D. Boeke et al.  2016.  The Genome Project-Write.  Science, 8 July 2016 [353(6295):126-127].http://science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6295/126.full
(2)    S. Dalquist.  2004.  Timeline – A Chronology of Public Opinion on Nuclear Power in the United States and United Kingdom.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  http://web.mit.edu/skd/www/dalquist-nuclear-opinion.pdf
(3)    R. Strohmeyer.  2008.  The 7 Worst Tech Predictions of All Time. PC World, 31 December 2008. http://www.pcworld.com/article/155984/worst_tech_predictions.html
(4)    G. Kolata.  2015.  Brain Cancers Reveal Novel Genetic Disruption in DNA.  The New York Times, 23 December 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/24/health/brain-cancers-reveal-novel-genetic-disruption-in-dna.html
(5)    J. Couzin.  2002.  Active Poliovirus Baked From Scratch.  Science, 12 July 2002.  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/297/5579/174.2.full
(6)    S. M. Block and D. Kennedy.  2002.  A Not-So-Cheap Stunt.  Science, 2 August 2002 [297(5582):769-770].  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/297/5582/769b
(7)    J. Temple.  2014.  Autodesk Builds Its Own Virus as the Software Giant Develops Design Tools for Life Itself.  Recode, 5 May 2014. http://www.recode.net/2014/5/5/11626456/autodesk-builds-its-own-virus-as-the-software-giant-develops-design
(8)    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
(9)    D. Endy and L. Zoloth.  2016.  Should We Synthesize a Human Genome?  Cosmos, 12 May 2016.  https://cosmosmagazine.com/society/should-we-synthesise-a-human-genome
(10)  S. Martelli.  2011.  The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin – A Review.  The Guardian, 6 August 2011.  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/aug/07/boys-from-brazil-levin-review
(11)  E. Callaway.  2016.  ‘Minimal’ Cell Raises Stakes in Race to Harness Synthetic Life.  Nature, 24 March 2016 (531:557-558).  http://www.nature.com/news/minimal-cell-raises-stakes-in-race-to-harness-synthetic-life-1.19633

Also of interest on JayVay – We Will Replicate You Wholesale  https://jayvay.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/we-will-replicate-you-wholesale/

 

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3 thoughts on “The Genomic Gutenberg Project – Writing the Living Novels of the Future

  1. Dr. Kokjohn, I am very appreciative of your ongoing science blogging — especially in the area of “creative writing” in our genome. It’s almost instinctive for a non-scientist or layperson to get the chills when reading of such radical possibilities in human transformation. I suspect most of us feel only marginally informed about the issues — what’s possible to do with chromosome construction and what the benefits and dangers of it are. Is any qualified body governing these developments? At what point does the lay public have an opportunity to weigh in? And will that be anything but loud, noxious noise?

    I wish I believed that only the brightest, most ethically-minded, compassionate and wise human beings were the umpires of this ballgame. While there may be a few such beings overseeing aspects of this terribly significant enterprise, I’m not optimistic that theirs will be the deciding voices in determining how genomic editing or creation will ultimately develop. Perhaps this is only speaking like an American, but won’t rewriting the human genome be governed primarily by the profit motive?

  2. Carol –

    Thanks for reading the post and posing some strong questions. In the U.S. the National Institutes of Health and other federal funding agencies will regulate the use and influence development of these technologies to the degree they can. The guidelines they develop will probably influence investigators not directly funded by these agencies as well, but this is not clear cut. However, the U.S. will not be able to control if and how other nations allow gene editing technology to be used.

    The U.S. National Academies of Sciences are working on reports regarding the issues, benefits and use of gene editing technologies. The areas are so vast that work has been broken down into 3 general areas; gene drives, human gene editing, and animal gene editing that are in various stages of completion. The reports and meeting proceedings are available free of charge and interested persons may comment on gene drive work at http://www8.nationalacademies.org/cp/projectview.aspx?key=49717 and human gene editing at http://nationalacademies.org/gene-editing/consensus-study/index.htm. Public input is vital, if for no other reason than to signal to the scientists how well their views of the technology match those of the general public.

    I firmly believe scientists want to do good things with CRISPR editing and are convinced of the value and promise of this technology. I also think the scientific opinion leaders recognize the potentially controversial nature of the work and have taken the 2003 statement of Parney Albright (U.S. Department of Homeland Security) to heart;

    “The science community ought to come up with a process before the public demands the government do it for them and that will be driven by the rate at which controversial papers hit the streets.”

    The late Dr. Bernard Davis noted how science has great powers and strict limits. The general public has an important role in deciding what role gene editing technologies will play in our future.

    Tyler

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