The idea that human beings could be created without biological parents sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s not, and the technology could be available in the not so distant future

It’s not known how many pathologists and clinical chemists were in attendance at a secret meeting that took place in Boston in May, which was organized to investigate the feasibility of building a synthetic human genome.

Nearly 150 scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and ethicists met in a closed-door session at Harvard Medical School to discuss creating a synthetic human genome. Although this meeting was secret, people took notice. The possibility of using a synthetic genome to create human beings—without biological parents—understandably caused concern among the life science communities, the New York Times reported, and the apparent secrecy fueled speculation that ignited controversy, which spread rapidly.

Were Pathologists at Meeting to Discuss Creation of a Synthetic Human Genome?

The meeting was reportedly named, “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells” and took place on May 10, 2016. HGP refers to the Human Genome Project, an international research project aimed at understanding genes of a human being or the human genome.

George Church, PhD, was one of the event organizers. Professor Church is Founding Core Faculty Member, Platform Lead, Synthetic Biology, Wyss Institute at Harvard University; Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School; and Professor of Health Sciences and Technology, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In a Washington Post article on the meeting, Church noted that the idea behind the gathering was to go beyond “reading” genetic material to actively “writing” it. He also stated that the meeting “wasn’t secret,” and that a peer-reviewed and embargoed article was likely to be published shortly thereafter.

Such an article was indeed published in the June issue of the journal Science, in which researchers presented a plan for creating a synthetic version of the entire human genetic code within 10 years.

Diagnostic Services Would Benefit; Questioning the Ethics

Pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders are no doubt aware of the possibilities such a breakthrough in gene sequencing technology would offer diagnostic services, especially in the areas of cancer therapy and treatments.

As Krishana Saha, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted in an article about the meeting published on the Genetic Experts News Service (GENeS) website, “The ability to write the genome, essentially by typing it into a computer would be revolutionary. If it were possible, it can be used for many applications—from engineering microbes that can produce industrially relevant chemical and biological compounds to genetically engineered human cells for therapeutic applications such as treating cancer and tissue regeneration,” Saha said.

George Church, PhD (above), Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics and Platform Lead, Synthetic Biology, Wyss Institute Harvard University, was one of the organizers of the meeting, which Church says was aimed at improving the synthesis of DNA in general—not at creating people but cells. (Photo copyright: Harvard Magazine/Stu Rosner.)

George Church, PhD (above), Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics and Platform Lead, Synthetic Biology, Wyss Institute Harvard University, was one of the organizers of the meeting, which Church says was aimed at improving the synthesis of DNA in general—not at creating people but cells. (Photo copyright: Harvard Magazine/Stu Rosner.)

However, the implications of such a breakthrough, as well as the apparent secrecy surrounding the meeting, sparked controversy from the outset. In an essay published in Cosmos, Laurie Zoloth, Professor of Medical Ethics and Humanities at Northwestern University in Chicago, and Drew Endy, PhD, Associate Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford University, pointed out that, while the estimated cost of synthesizing a whole human genome has dropped from $4.00 to just 3-cents per individual letter (or base pair) of DNA since 2003, the cost to “print” the DNA fragments of a whole human genome (3 billion base pairs) is still between $12 million to $90 billion. And though technological improvements over the next 20 years could eventually drop that price to as low as $100,000, Zoloth and Endy predict that the future demand for a synthesized human genome might not be adequate.

“While we strongly agree that sustained improvements in DNA construction tools are essential for advancing basic biological science and improving public health, we are skeptical that synthesizing a human genome is an appropriate demand driver,” Zoloth and Endy wrote. “We argue that the synthesis of less controversial and more immediately useful genomes along with greatly improved sub-genomic synthesis capacities (for example, the real-time printing of plasmids, the cassettes that transfer genes between cells) should be pursued instead,” the co-authors concluded.

Should Moral Consequences Also Be Considered?

And then there’s the strong possibility that the technology could bring out the worst in humanity. That’s where ethics come into play.

“Would it be okay, for example, to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome? If so, how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?” wrote Endy and Zoloth.

“To create a human genome from scratch,” they continued, “would be an enormous moral gesture whose consequences should not be framed initially on the advice of lawyers and regulators alone. The perspectives of others including self-identified theologians, philosophers, and ethicists, should be sought from the beginning.”

Indeed, opposition to heritable genetic modification is strong, according to a statement released by the Center for Genetics and Society.

Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, Executive Director of the Center stated, “From what we know so far, it’s hard to tell much about the actual technical purpose, business plan, or public relations agenda of the conveners. If these reports are accurate, the meeting looks like a move to privatize the current conversation about heritable genetic modification.

“A semi-secret meeting of scientists and business people to make plans about synthesizing the human genome is a new low in scientific accountability,” Darnovsky continued.

“Fully synthetic humans are not close at hand. But genetically modified humans could be. If the next move from the conveners of the Harvard meeting is a splashy announcement about a privately financed moon-shot project, that would really make a stark contrast to the promise of broad societal consensus,” Darnovsky concluded.

Building on Recent Progress

The creation of a synthetic cell will have a profound and positive impact on understanding biology and how life works, according to the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). JCVI research led to the building of the first minimal synthetic bacterial cell called the JCVI-syn3.0, noted a recent Dark Daily e-briefing.

The clinical laboratory industry has a stake in issues surrounding synthesizing the human genome. That’s because pathologists and clinical laboratory administrators are on the frontline for testing in support of personalized medicine. They will be among the experts on a care team guiding patients’ diagnoses, customizing their therapies, and, hopefully, predicting and preventing disease.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome

Why Did Harvard Scientists Hold a ‘Secret’ Synthetic Genome Meeting?

Top Scientists Hold Closed Meeting to Discuss Building a Human Genome from Scratch

Secret Harvard Meeting on Synthetic Human Genomes Incites Ethics Debate

Should We Synthesize Human Genome?

Comment – Closed Harvard Meeting on Human Genome Synthesis

Experts Held a Secret Meeting to Consider Building a Human Genome from Scratch

Late Night, Unedited Musings on Synthesizing Secret Genomes

Harvard Meeting Synthesizing Human Genome Questioned Over Secrecy

Venter’s Research Team Creates an Artificial Cell and Reports that 32 of Genes are Life-Essential but Contain Unknown Functions