Gene scientists in secret talks on replicants

Fiction no more: Synthetic humans such as Pris in the 1982 movie Blade Runner. © Warner Bros

Last week, 150 top genetic scientists and entrepreneurs met in secret to discuss the possibility of synthesising a human genome from scratch. The potential consequences are mind-boggling.

‘This is a closed by invitation scientific session… We intentionally did not invite the media, because we want everyone to speak freely.’ This was the stern message sent to 150 scientists, lawyers and entrepreneurs before they attended a meeting at Harvard Medical School last week. The agenda? Synthesising a human genome.

But although journalists were not invited, they soon started paying attention. The discussions could ‘completely redefine the core of what now joins all of humanity together,’ wrote the professors Drew Endy and Laurie Zoloth. In other words, it is not a conversation that should happen in private.

A genome is a living thing’s complete set of DNA, including the three billion base pairs which make up a person’s 20,000–25,000 genes. These are the ‘building blocks’ which make something — or someone — unique. It took the Human Genome Project (HGP) around 13 years, $2.7 billion and over 1,000 scientists to record one for the first time in 2003. Now you can get yours done for under $1,000.

With that success in mind, the genetics professor George Church used the Harvard meeting to propose HGP2: using chemicals to create an entire human genome from scratch. Instead of just ‘reading’ genetic information, HGP2 would ‘write’ it.

Church is not talking about creating an ‘artificial’ human being. The project would only be used to create individual cells, not a living, breathing person. This would help to improve medical research, and — as seen with HGP — the ambitious project could dramatically lower the cost of gene synthesis for everyone.

But some scientists are already worried that the technology could get wildly out of hand. How long before it is used to create babies to suit their parents’ tastes? Or an army of super-soldiers? Or an exact replica of Albert Einstein? This debate should include our entire species, they say — not just a handful of Harvard elites.

Skinny genes

The project has been misrepresented, insists Church. No one wants to take this research too far — if they did, he would be ‘running away from it’ too. But synthesising genes is already possible, and HGP2 would simply help scientists to get better at it. They could then apply their skills to more specific medical problems — such as eliminating diseases or developing better treatments.

It does not matter, respond critics. Scientists have been warning that there is not enough regulation around DNA synthesis since 2007. Church could have the best intentions in the world, but once the technology is out there he will not be able to control what other people do with it. Synthesising a complete genome could lead humanity to a very dark place — we should not take the risk.

You Decide

  1. If you could build a person from scratch, what would they be like?
  2. Should the scientists be allowed to go ahead with their project to create the first synthetic human genome?

Activities

  1. The year is 2100. Synthetic humans, designed entirely from scratch, walk the Earth. They do not have genetic parents. Write a short story which explores what it is like to be one of them.
  2. Draw and label a strand of DNA.

Some People Say...

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Would it really be so bad?
Scientists like Church will argue that creating synthetic human cells would not be crossing an ethical line — a cell is hardly a whole person. But placing a synthetic genome into an embryo could, potentially, lead to the first truly parentless person. And there is no way of knowing what the physical and psychological consequences would be for them.
Surely it would never go that far?
Hopefully not. But humans have a way of getting used to things — when the first ‘test tube baby’ was born via IVF in 1978, she was called a ‘moral abomination’. Now more than five million have been born. So even though we may be uncomfortable with the idea of synthetic humans now, there is no telling how future generations will react. The question is, should we give them the chance?

Word Watch

Harvard Medical School
Based in Boston, USA, this graduate university consistently ranks as the best medical school in the world.
DNA
Deoxyribonucleic acid is the chemical found in chromosomes which carries genetic material. It has a ‘double-helix’ structure — two strands twisted around each other.
Base pairs
DNA molecules are coded with a series of four letters, or bases, which work in pairs: A, C, T, and G.
Genes
Genes are the ‘recipes’ of base code which provide the instructions to make cells work. Around 99.9% of human genes are identical.
Human Genome Project
The project is one of humankind’s most significant scientific achievements, and is sometimes compared to the moon landing.
George Church
The Harvard genetics professor is also involved in a controversial project to ‘resurrect’ a woolly mammoth using gene-editing techniques. (See Become An Expert, final item.)
2007
This was raised in the scientific journal Nature. ‘Misuse of DNA-synthesis technology could give rise to both known and unforeseeable threats to our biological safety and security,’ warned a group of scientists.

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