The authors of the proposal said the ability to fabricate huge stretches of DNA would allow for numerous scientific and medical advances.
Scientists Thursday formally announced the start of a 10-year project aimed at improving the ability to chemically manufacture DNA, with one of the goals being to synthetically create an entire human genome.
Plans for the project, which leaked last month, have set off debate, because the ability to chemically fabricate the complete set of human chromosomes could theoretically allow the creation of babies without biological parents.
Some critics also objected to the secrecy surrounding a meeting to discuss the project at Harvard Medical School in May. The organizers said they avoided publicity so as to not jeopardize publication of the proposal in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The publication occurred Thursday by the journal Science.
The authors said the ability to fabricate huge stretches of DNA would allow for numerous scientific and medical advances. It might be possible to make organisms resistant to all viruses, for instance, or make pig organs suitable for transplant into people.
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The project, which will be run by a new nonprofit organization called the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology, will seek to raise $100 million this year from various public and private sources. Organizers declined to state the ultimate cost of the project, though it could top $1 billion
Whether the federal government will support the project is unknown. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the main funder of medical research in the United States, had a tepid response Thursday.
Collins said in a statement that while NIH was interested in encouraging advances in DNA synthesis, it “has not considered the time to be right for funding a large-scale production-oriented” project like the one being proposed.
He added that “whole-genome, whole-organism synthesis projects extend far beyond current scientific capabilities, and immediately raise numerous ethical and philosophical red flags.”
The effort is being called Human Genome Project-Write, because it is aimed at writing the DNA of life. The original Human Genome Project, which was completed more than a decade ago, aimed at reading the sequence of the 3 billion letters that make up the genetic code of humans.
The cost of sequencing DNA has fallen dramatically, so that it is possible to sequence a person’s complete DNA for about $1,000. As a result, DNA sequencing is routinely used for medical diagnoses, crop breeding and research.
The organizers of the HGP-Write project hope to do the same with DNA synthesis, cutting the cost more than 1,000-fold in a decade. Even if progress is made, it might cost several million dollars in 10 years to fabricate one human genome.
The authors of the paper in Science say they do not want to create babies but maintain that focusing on a grand challenge like synthesizing an entire human genome would be the best way to galvanize advances in DNA synthesis that could be used for more practical purposes, such as engineering plants, animals and microbes.
“By focusing on building the 3Gb of human DNA, HGP-Write would push current conceptual and technical limits by orders of magnitude and deliver important scientific advances,” they write, referring to three gigabases, the 3 billion letters in the human genome.
Scientists already can change DNA in organisms or add foreign genes, as is done to make medicines such as insulin or genetically modified crops. New “genome-editing” tools, like one called Crispr, are making it far easier to re-engineer an organism’s DNA blueprint.
But George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of the organizers of the new project, said that if the changes desired are extensive, at some point it becomes easier to synthesize the needed DNA from scratch.
“Editing doesn’t scale very well,” he said. “When you have to make changes to every gene in the genome, it may be more efficient to do it in large chunks.”
Besides Church, the other organizers of the project are Jef Boeke, director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center; Andrew Hessel, a futurist at the software company Autodesk; and Nancy Kelley, who works raising money for projects. The paper in Science lists 25 authors, many of them involved in DNA engineering.
Autodesk, which has given $250,000 to the project, is interested in selling software to help biologists design DNA sequences to make organisms perform particular functions.
Church is a founder of Gen9, a company that sells made-to-order strands of DNA.
Two people who criticized the project, and the secrecy surrounding it last month, said Thursday that they were still not satisfied. While the paper in Science addresses the need to consider ethical issues, they said that should have been done before starting the project.
“Before launching into such a momentous project, with such enormous ethical and theological implications, a basic ethical question still needs to be asked — starting with whether and under what circumstances we should make such technologies real,” said a statement issued by Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford, and Laurie Zoloth, a professor of religion at Northwestern University.