Scientists call for global drive to create the first ever synthetic human genome

'There is no call to make an entire human being,' however

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Thursday 02 June 2016 19:03 BST
A digital representation of the human genome.. Each color represents one the four chemical components of DNA.
A digital representation of the human genome.. Each color represents one the four chemical components of DNA. (A digital representation of the human genome.. Each color represents one the four chemical components of DNA.)

An international team of scientists has proposed a major international project to create a synthetic human genome in a highly controversial move that they admit raises ethical and legal questions.

Writing in the journal science, 25 of the leading scientists in the field pointed out that the original Human Genome Project (HGP) was “considered controversial by some” but was now recognized “as one of the great feats of exploration, one that has revolutionized science and medicine”.

Calling that HGP-Read, they said it was now time to embark upon “HGP -Write” – a project that could cost billions of pounds.

Other scientists hailed the ambition of the project saying it should lead to a revolution in medicine and they stressed there was “no call to make an entire human being”.

“HGP-write will aim to address a number of human health challenges,” the scientists said.

“Potential applications include growing transplantable human organs; engineering immunity to viruses in cell lines via

genome-wide recoding; engineering cancer resistance into new therapeutic cell lines; and accelerating high-productivity, cost-efficient vaccine and pharmaceutical development.”

The idea of editing the human genome has proved hugely controversial. It holds out the prospect of a cure for inherited diseases but also raises the prospect of trying to genetically modify children to look a certain way or possess some supposedly beneficial trait.

The article in Science accepted there were pitfalls that would need to be avoided when creating an entirely synthetic genome.

“Some applications are controversial; human germline editing in particular has raised intense moral debate,” it said.

“As human genome-scale synthesis appears increasingly feasible, a coordinated scientific effort to understand, discuss, and apply large-genome engineering technologies is timely.

“HGP-write will require public involvement and consideration of ethical, legal, and social implications from the start.”

And it added: “The highest biosafety standards should guide project work, and safety for lab workers, research participants, and ecosystems should pervade the design process.”

John Ward, a professor of synthetic biology at University College London, said: “This new call to arms is to develop ways of building larger and larger segments of DNA up to chromosome and genome-sized DNA molecules.

“The ultimate goal would be to synthesise the complete human genome from scratch.

“This is as bold an aim as the original human genome project (HGP) and the authors of this Science paper acknowledge that their new aim will be met with similar controversy as the original HGP had to contend with.

“But it’s now well accepted that the original HGP opened up the possibility and increasingly, the reality, for new medical treatments in human genetic diseases and cancer and we will be reaping the benefits of this for decades to come.”

He said HGP-Write was “not as controversial as some observers might be saying”.

“Making large and larger pieces of human chromosomes and putting them into host cells in culture dishes will enable more deeper understanding of what all the genes and the non-coding DNA actually does.

“On the route to the final goal of this new initiative will be a myriad of new therapies for treating medical conditions from genetic diseases to viral infections. There is no call to make an entire human being just as there is no push for doing that with current studies using human embryos.”

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