Synthetic human genomes may be produced one day, resulting in the development of an entirely artificial human being. But how close is science to creating a living, breathing human being from nothing but a mixture of chemicals?
Harvard University held a closed-door meeting on the subject on May 10. Attendees, including researchers, business leaders and others, discussed ideas on developing such artificial gene sequences. Members of the press were not invited to the meetings, generating waves of controversy over what may have been discussed at the get-together.
Human genomes are normally passed on from parent to child, transferring inheritable traits. Creating such a genome may be possible in as little as a decade, organizers of the meeting contend.
However, even if the creation of such a genetic code transpired in the coming years, these sequences could only be placed within a cell to test the genome. This would still be a far cry from the creation of an entire synthetically formed human being.
As genetic sequencing techniques become more advanced, the ability to build genomes becomes easier and less expensive. In 2003, building each block of a genetic code cost roughly 4 dollars. Just 13 years later, that cost has plummeted to just 3 cents per letter. With 3 billion base pairs, building a human genome would cost just $90 million today, versus $12 billion in 2003.
At that rate, within 20 years, the cost to construct a synthetic human genome would plummet to a mere $100,000. However, some researchers believe these cost savings will only come about if a "grand challenge" is announced to drive innovation.
"While we strongly agree that sustained improvements in DNA construction tools are essential for advancing basic biological science and improving public health we are sceptical that synthesising a human genome is an appropriate demand driver," Laurie Zoloth of Northwestern University and Drew Endy of Stanford University wrote.
These innovations can sometimes hurt research, rather than help drive it. The development of a synthetic polio virus in 2002 generated significant backlash from the general public. The result of this was cutbacks in public funding for the development of synthetic DNA.
Once the technology is available to easily and inexpensively synthesize human genomes, a bevy of ethical dilemmas will present themselves.
If it is possible to sequence and produce genomes of the best and brightest people n the world, how many copies of the same sequence should be produced, and who would be able to obtain them? Will parents who wish to raise a scientist be allowed to utilize genes patterned after famed physicist Albert Einstein? What about sports-minded parents who want a child with the baseball-related skills of Red Sox slugger David Ortiz?
Researchers are still a long way from the development of an entire synthetic human genome, however. The first man-made species, JCVI-syn1.0, was created in 2010.
Medical researchers are still decades away from producing a single synthetic human genome. Only after that could science, theoretically, produce an entirely artificial human being. Those people who worry about the development of this technology have a long time to wait before their fears may be realized, but that day is coming.