Why do we need a synthetic human genome?
Plans for a public-private collaboration to create an entire synthetic human genome from scratch were formally unveiled today. Called ‘Human Genome Project – Write’ (as opposed to ‘Read’, the purview of the first HGP), the project was unceremoniously outed last month amid hysteria around a ‘secret meeting‘. Since there has been more than a little hype about the project, lead by synthetic biologist Jef Boeke, at New York University; genome scientist George Church, at Harvard Medical School in Boston; and Andrew Hessel, a futurist at the commercial design studio Autodesk Research in San Rafael, California, the final paper has been the subject of some pretty intense scrutiny.
There’s no denying that HGP-Write is ambitious in its aims. The primary goal is the dramatically reduce the costs associated with engineering and testing large (0.1 to 100 billion base pairs) genomes using cell lines; a 1000 fold decrease during the 10 year life of the project. So far only tiny bacterial genomes have been synthesised from scratch, such as Craig Venter’s ‘synth’ organisms.
Church and co are looking to accompany HGP-Write with extensive public engagement, acknowledging that making progress in this field will be hampered without decent public buy in. In the project overview they explain that “HGP-write will require public involvement and consideration of ethical, legal, and social implications from the start.”
However, not everyone is bought in to this next phase of the human genome project. Nature highlighted the study’s mixed response within the synthetic biology community, where some scientists feel that the project is simply a ‘centralisation’ of work that is already taking place on a smaller scale in other institutes. “My first thought was ‘so what’,” says Martin Fussenegger, a synthetic biologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich speaking to Nature. “I personally think this will happen naturally. It’s just a matter of price at the end.”
Fussenegger is not the only one left feeling a little flat by the announcement. I found myself scouring the paper looking for the ‘why’ behind the study. Sure, creating genomes from scratch is the stuff of mind-bending coolness; and there are potential benefits to be had in reducing the cost of engineering genomes as the authors describe. But is that it? Surely not. Take Venter’s work with synthetic life: he may have revealed the minimum number of genes required for a functioning organism, but he still don’t know what two thirds of those genes actually do. HGP-Write has the potential to throw up some really interesting, and potentially uncomfortable questions around the nature of human life, which (I think) have the potential to reach further into the scientific and public imagination than simply reducing the costs.
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