Scientists held a secret meeting about creating synthetic human genomes on May 10 at Harvard University. There were no media people invited and attendees such as lawyers, businessmen and experts were asked to keep their lips sealed.
The scientists are specifically looking at fabricating the human genome and using chemicals to create all the DNA found in the chromosomes of humans.
While the closed-door meeting is a cause for concern, scientists are more particularly worried because of the possibility that these plans may actually push through. The rise of synthetic human genomes is possible, which means that soon, experts may be able to clone and use these genomes to create humans without biological parents.
Gene Editing vs. Creation Of Synthetic Human Genomes
Creating synthetic human genome is different from gene editing such that the former involves using chemicals to generate the entire DNA, instead of tweaking genes, which is the nature of the latter.
Synthetic genomics also depends on customized base pair genes, opening a door of endless possibilities as experts would not be limited by just two base pairs found in nature.
More On Synthetic Genomics
Through synthetic genomics, geneticists can modify DNA in cells by introducing foreign genes or altering letters in current genes. Such strategy is commonly practiced in manufacturing medicines such as insulin for diabetes care and for making genetically modified crops.
Being able to synthesize a gene or an entire genome sequence would also mean experts can also make wider-scope alterations in DNA.
For example, food firms are now using substances such as yeast in creating more complex chemicals like flavorings. The process necessitates not only one, but multiple genes to produce an entire chemical network inside the cell. Given the complicated process, it may be much better to synthesize DNA from point blank.
Challenges To Synthetic Genomics
One of the challenges of synthetic genomics is ethics. The technology can allow scientists to create modifications in human embryos, thus raising questions about whether it can survive the scrutiny of the public and of various concerned sectors.
Aside from the issue of morality, DNA synthesis may also be very challenging and prone to errors. Current methods may only create approximately 200 base pairs. For comparison, a single gene can run for hundreds or thousands of pairs long. To be able to make synthesis successful, numerous 200-unit portions need to be grafted together.
"Most of us are still working on a small scale because there are interesting questions there and because that's what we have the technology to build," says James Collins, a biomedical engineer from Boston University in Massachusetts.
Mysteries Surrounding The Meeting
The meeting was enveloped by mysteries primarily because of its being kept a secret. As the project is laden with ethical issues, questions about scientists finally having the power to create and copy humans emerged.
For example, Drew Endy from Stanford University, who was invited to the exclusive meeting, asks if it would be OK to sequence and synthesize the genome of Albert Einstein. Endy and Northwestern University bioethicist Laurie Zoloth wrote and essay denouncing the project.
Endy did not attend the meeting because according to him, it was not opened to a lot of people and lacked information on ethical considerations.
"To create a human genome from scratch would be an enormous moral gesture whose consequences should not be framed initially on the advice of lawyers and regulators alone," argued Endy and Zoloth. "Discussions to synthesize, for the first time, a human genome should not occur in closed rooms."
Project organizer George Church of Harvard said there had been a misunderstanding. He explained that the project is not meant to create humans alone - it is targeted at cells. The goal is to improve DNA synthesis in general and to use this for applications in plants, animals and microbes.
Church also explained the reason the meeting was kept a secret. He said the project organizers did not invite the media and requested the attendees not to tweet about it because a paper about the project would be published in a scientific journal for transparency, and they simply did not want any information to leak prior to publication.