|Arthur Dominic Villasanta |||May 15, 2016 03:18 AM EDT|
(Photo : Harvard Medical School) Geneticist Dr. George Church and some of his work
Imagine a future Earth where some children are born without both biological parents. Or persons created as physically or intellectually superior by creating their genomes. These are just two of the many consequences that might occur if scientists proceed with their idea to create synthetic human genomes.
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This form of creation was the main topic discussed at what has become a controversial closed door meeting last May 10 at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. Some 150 persons, mostly scientists, attended the hush-hush gathering and were told not to reveal the issues discussed.
What is known is that those present shared ideas about creating synthetic human genomes using chemicals. This new project will involve not reading but writing the human genome. That means artificially synthesizing all three billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint for human life to control the outcome. In essence, the project proposes to use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.
It's never been done before and the ethical and legal implications of this technique that's different from gene editing are enormous.
In effect, the project -- if implemented -- would make scientists God.
The project has been given the name "HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells" by its proponents, one of whom is the famous Dr. George Church, a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. His innovations have contributed to nearly all next generation DNA sequencing methods used today. He's also closely linked to the gene editing technique known as CRISPR.
Those invited to the meeting were told the project's primary goal "would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years."
Dr. Church said the meeting was closed to others not because of sinister motives but because the project organizers had submitted a paper to a scientific journal and weren't allowed to discuss the idea publicly before publication.
He also took exception to some of the negative hype that has since latched onto the project such as the creation of designer babies and super soldiers.
Dr. Church said the project isn't aimed at creating people, just cells. The project also won't be restricted to human genomes. The project's aim will be to improve the ability to synthesize DNA in general, which could be applied to animals, plants and microbes.
"They're painting a picture which I don't think represents the project," Dr. Church about the negative reviews received by the meeting. "If that were the project, I'd be running away from it."
The project was initially called HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project, with HGP meaning Human Genome Project.
Experts say synthesizing DNA is very difficult and prone to mistakes even with advanced technologies since existing techniques can only reliably make strands about 200 base pairs long.
These base pairs are the chemical units in DNA and a single gene can be hundreds or thousands of base pairs long. To synthesize one of these base pairs, multiple 200-unit segments have to be spliced together, an enormous task.
Relying on custom-designed base pair series opens to the door to a vast range of possibilities such custom-designed or designer humans, or "quasi-humans" (the term for humans without any parents) if scientists decide to proceed along this minefield.
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