Synthetic genome proposal raises spectre of super humans

3 Jun 2016

They claim that the ability to fabricate huge stretches of DNA will make it possible, for example, to make organisms that could be resistant to viruses

A group of 25 scientists has launched a proposal to create a synthetic human genome or genetic blueprint, raising controversial questions about the prospect of designer or super humans.

The scientists have proposed the stringing together of synthetically-made DNA, shaping it from a human genome and powering a cell in a dish.

The main thrust of their argument is that the project could reduce the cost of fabricating DNA, sending it plummeting 1,000-fold in 10 years.

This could lead to revolutionary advances in science and technology.

The scientists claim that the ability to fabricate huge stretches of DNA will make it possible, for example, to make organisms that could be resistant to viruses, or make pig organs that could be transplanted into people.

Moral and theological debate

However, the plans have sparked ethical debates around the potential to theoretically create babies without biological parents.

Authors of a two-and-a-half-page letter published in Science include Jef Boeke of New York University and George Church, a biotechnologist with Harvard Medical School.

“Although sequencing, analysing, and editing DNA continue to advance at break neck pace, the capability to construct DNA sequences in cells is mostly limited to a small number of short segments, restricting the ability to manipulate and understand biological systems,” they said in an abstract.

“Further understanding of genetic blueprints could come from construction of large, gigabase(Gb)–sized animal and plant genomes, including the human genome, which would in turn drive development of tools and methods to facilitate large-scale synthesis and editing of genomes. To this end, we propose the Human Genome Project–Write (HGP-write).”

The project is being run by a new non-profit organisation called the Centre of Excellence for Engineering Biology, which aims to raise $100m this year from public and private backers, including software firm Autodesk which has invested $250,000 in the project.

Red flags

However, the ethical implications of what the scientists propose have already attracted the ire of fellow scientists, according to The New York Times.

“Before launching into such a momentous project, with such enormous ethical and theological implications, a basic ethical question still needs to be asked — starting with whether and under what circumstances we should make such technologies real,” said Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford, and Laurie Zoloth, a professor of religion at Northwestern University in a statement.

A tepid response also came from the US National Institutes of Health, whose director Dr Francis Collins said that while interested in encouraging advances in DNA synthesis, the “whole-genome, whole-organism synthesis projects extend far beyond current scientific capabilities, and immediately raise numerous ethical and philosophical red flags.”

DNA double helix image via National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years