Scientists Meet at Harvard University Privately to Discuss Human Genome Synthesis

Scientists Meet at Harvard University Privately to Discuss Human Genome Synthesis

Multiple outlets reported that about 150 scientists met at Harvard University Medical School on Tuesday to discuss creating a synthetic human genome using chemicals to manufacture DNA.


Prominent Stanford scientist Drew Endy is denouncing a secret meeting held at Harvard University this week to discuss creating a synthetic human genome — essentially, constructing human life from scratch using chemicals.

In an essay criticizing the proposed project, Endy and Northwestern University bioethicist Laurie Zoloth said human genome synthesis is a scientific development with enormous moral implications, so discussions “should not occur in closed rooms.”

The goal of the project — discussed Tuesday by an invitation-only group of about 130 scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs and government officials from five continents — “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years,” according to the invitation.

Organizers included Harvard Medical School genetics Professor George Church and San Francisco-based Andrew Hessel of Autodesk’s Bio/Nano Research Group.

It portends a future with sci-fi implications, when a human genome –the complete set of genetic instructions for a human being — could be assembled like a Tinkertoy.

Large societal questions loom. Among them: Who will fund, control and coordinate the research and its applications?

“For example, would it be OK to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome? If so how many Einstein genomes would it be OK to make and install in cells, and who could get to make and control these cells?” Endy and Zoloth wrote.

Their essay was published the same day as the secret meeting in [email protected], an open-access collection of Massachusetts Institute of Technology documents that include peer-reviewed articles, technical reports, working papers, theses and more.

Endy, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford, is one of the leaders in the field of synthetic biology. His work has shaped and propelled the development of the field. He co-founded the MIT Synthetic Biology working group, organized the first International Conference on Synthetic Biology and is president of the BioBricks Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded to ensure that the emerging field would serve the public interest.

“Genomics is in the middle of four revolutions: sequencing, editing, synthesizing and understanding,” said Hank Greely, director of Stanford’s Center for Law and the Biosciences. “The first is well-advanced, the second coming on strong, the third just starting and the fourth — and most important — still scratching the surface.”

Scientists say genome synthesis is possible because of this simple fact: Life is one long code.

Four molecules — each called a “base,” the most irreducible unit of life, represented by the letters A (adenine), T (thymine), G (guanine) and C (cytosine) — write the words for the dictionary of creation. The human genome is three billion bases long.

“I don’t think whether a genome, human or otherwise, is synthesized or edited is, itself, likely to be important,” Greely said. “The crucial questions will be what changes are made, with what results?”

Thanks to new production techniques, the cost of assembling genes has dropped from $4 to 3 cents per base, according to Endy.

This means the price tag of a human genome has fallen from $12 billion to $90 million, Endy wrote. If cost reductions continue, he predicted, the price of a human genome could approach a mere $100,000 in two decades.

That’s the cost of a Tesla Roadster.

“Closed meetings have a place — in very early, and usually small, discussions of a sensitive topic,” said Stanford’s Greely. “At a reported 130 attendees, and after an earlier small meeting, I’m not sure closing this meeting made sense.”

Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, said: “If these reports are accurate, the meeting looks like a move to privatize the current conversation about heritable genetic modification.”

The project does not yet have funding, organizer Church told the New York Times, though various companies and foundations would be invited to contribute and some have indicated interest. The federal government will also be asked, he said.

Reached for comment, Autodesk’s Hessel referred questions to Church and Jef Boeke, director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

The meeting was closed to the press and participants were asked not to tweet because the project organizers have submitted a paper to a scientific journal and were told not to discuss before publication, Church told the Times.

But a Twitter screenshot appearing to be a message from the meeting organizers, posted by Endy, said: “We intentionally did not invite the media, because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted as the discussions evolve.”

Retorted Endy:

“If you need secrecy to discuss your proposed research … you are doing something wrong.”

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