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The Battle Over The Synthetic Human Genome

5 June 2016, 3:16 am EDT By James Maynard Tech Times
Scientists in Boston have detected 15 new DNA regions that appear to be linked with a person's risk of depression. The findings may help researchers develop better treatments.  ( Caroline Davis | Flickr )

The creation of a synthetic human genome is now within the reach of researchers, and the possibility of forming a genetic blueprint of a human being is stirring controversy. While one group of researchers praises the vision of the project, others are urging their fellow scientists to wait to develop a synthetic human genome until the moral implications of such a development can be decided.

Human Genome Project-write (HGP-write) presents a significant goal for researchers as, so far, only the genes of baker's yeast and simple bacteria have been developed in the laboratory.

In May, a group of scientists met at a closed-door meeting held at Harvard University. Although organizers of the event claimed the secrecy was due to discussion of a non-public scientific paper, the nature of the meeting drew ire from around the globe.

"I think it's a brilliant project. If you want to do this, it's going to be on the same scale as the Human Genome Project, it's going to need some big funding agencies and hundreds and hundreds of researchers around the world," Paul Fremont, a synthetic biologist at Imperial College London and attendee at the meeting, said.

Current technology is too costly, as well as too slow, to form a completely synthetic genome of a human being. One path toward the development of such a gene could be to form segments of code to carry out specific functions. Such a plan could save a significant portion of the full project cost.

Developing a complete human genome from scratch is a project which would take a decade or more to complete, at a cost of billions of dollars. Developers of the technology are hoping to raise $100 million from a variety of sources in order to launch their project.

Some critics are concerned that focus on a synthetic human genome could draw attention and resources away from other research. Proponents of HGP-write believe their work will contribute greatly to knowledge of the genetics of other species.

"Exponential improvements in genome engineering technologies and functional testing provide an opportunity to deepen the understanding of our genetic blueprint and use this knowledge to address many of the global problems facing humanity," George Church of Harvard Medical School said.

Developers of HGP-write state their project will uncover the mechanisms by which genes are tied to biological mechanisms and functions. This research could assist in the development of new medicines and targeted treatments for a wide variety of ailments.

Investigators will first focus on synthesizing a segment of about 1 percent of the human genome, in order to test if such a complete undertaking is feasible.

Information and knowledge gained from the development of HGP-write will be made available for free to the general public. The portions of genes selected for this test of concept are those likely to yield results advantageous to medical research.

The greatest fears of opponents of HGP-write could center on nightmarish visions of clones and a modern age of eugenics. For now, however, scientists are not yet even able to insert functional synthetic genomes into a working cell of a mammal.

Photo: Caroline Davis | Flickr

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