Gizmodo | Experts Held a Secret Meeting to Consider Building a Human Genome From Scratch
Earlier this week, over a hundred scientists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs gathered to discuss the radical possibility of creating a synthetic human genome. Strangely, journalists were not invited, and attendees were told to keep a tight lip. Which, given the weighty subject matter, is obvious cause for concern.
The idea of creating a synthetic human genome is qualitatively different than gene editing. Instead of scientists patching a gene here and a gene there, they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes. Synthetic genomics, unlike genetic modifications, in that it doesn’t use naturally occurring genes. Instead, it relies on the custom-designed base pair series. This opens to the door to a greater array of possibilities, as geneticists wouldn’t be bound by the two base pairs produced by nature.
Currently, scientists see synthetic genomics as a way to build novel microbes and animals, but the same principle applies to humans. It thus raises the prospect of custom-designed humans, or even quasi-humans, without any parents. It’s a massive bombshell of a topic—one requiring serious rumination and discussion. But for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, this futuristic endeavor appears to be getting off on the wrong foot.
As science writer Andrew Pollack reports in the New York Times, the prospect of synthetic human genomes was discussed at a secret meeting held at Harvard Medical School this past Tuesday. Pollack says that those in attendance were told “not to contact the media or to tweet about the meeting.”
According to George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard medical school and a key organizer of the proposed project, the whole thing is an unfortunate misunderstanding. Church says the meeting wasn’t really about synthetic human genomes, but rather it was about efforts to improve the ability to synthesize long strands of DNA, which geneticists could use to create all manner of animals, plants and microbes. Church was quoted in the NYT as saying: “They’re painting a picture which I don’t think represents the project. If that were the project, I’d be running away from it.”