The biotechnology community is abuzz with the recent formal announcement that plans are afoot to synthesize the human genome. The announcement, which was published in early June in the journal Science, served as the official launch for the “Human Genome Project-write” (HGP-write), an effort that aims to build on the knowledge of the original Human Genome Project—a groundbreaking initiative that saw the sequencing of the human genome completed in 2003—and develop technologies that will lower the currently prohibitive costs of large-scale DNA synthesis.
But while HGP-write has inspired excitement in some circles and controversy in others, one thing that is certain is that it will be some time before this highly ambitious project is likely to yield any significant results: a time frame of 10 years has been quoted as the minimum necessary for work to get started. In the meantime, read on for a more detailed breakdown of the proposed HGP-write effort.
At present, the high costs and relatively primitive capabilities of current technologies make it virtually impossible to create a synthetic version of the human genome, which is composed of a staggering 3 billion base pairs of genetic material. HGP-write therefore aims to break the task of complete human genome synthesis down into more manageable portions through a series of pilot projects that will tackle objectives like synthesizing short sections of the genome and creating slimmed-down chromosomes to accomplish specific tasks (these pilot projects are equivalent to synthesizing about 1% of the human genome and will help to establish the overall feasibility and value of HGP-write).
The research team is headed by Jef Boeke, a synthetic biologist at New York University; George Church, a genome scientist at Harvard Medical School; Andrew Hessel, a futurist at Autodesk Research, a California-based bio/nano research group; and Nancy Kelley, the former founding executive director of the New York Genome Center. The team estimates that the complete cost of HGP-write will be less than $3 billion (the price tag for the original Human Genome Project, which was publicly funded). Their initial goal is to secure $100 million from a variety of funding sources in order to get HGP-write work started.
Goals and applications
Many scientists now believe that writing DNA from scratch, rather than simply reading it, is fundamental to furthering our understanding of the human genome. By connecting the base sequences in DNA with their corresponding functional and physiological behaviors, scientists can take the important step from observation to action and may have the potential to greatly expand biological engineering to provide solutions to some of humanity’s most pressing global challenges.
For example, some applications that HGP-write could lead to include growing human organs for transplant, engineering cell lines with virus immunity and cancer resistance, facilitating highly productive and cost-effective drug development, and accelerating research and development in areas like energy sources and nutrition.
Barriers and controversy
Naturally enough for such an ambitious project, HGP-write has attracted its fair share of controversy. Many groups have raised concerns about the ethical implications of an initiative that could, in theory, lead to the creation of genetically enhanced, made-to-order human beings without the need for biological parents.
HGP-write has also been criticized for insufficient attempts to encourage public discourse around the project’s issues (the leadership team drew a great deal of public disapproval for first airing their proposal for HGP-write at a “secretive” invite-only meeting at Harvard University in the month prior to the project’s formal announcement). However, the team has declared its intention to foster more public involvement and create greater buy-in for the project. In addition, in the hopes of quelling fears about clones or eugenics, it has also stated that the synthetic cells used in HGP-write will be engineered to disallow reproduction.
Beyond the ethical concerns, a number of scientists have taken issue with some of the more practical implications of HGP-write. Some worry that centralizing DNA synthesis efforts and focusing activity explicitly on synthesizing the human genome, as opposed to creating versions of many different kinds of genomes, could potentially reduce the scope of any products of the effort, as there would be less room for exploration and unanticipated discoveries. Other researchers worry that the involvement of commercial interests in HGP-write, such as DNA-synthesis companies, could lead to intellectual property restrictions that would limit wider access to the fruits of the project. If that were the case, it would place HGP-write in striking opposition to the original Human Genome Project, which was an open, publicly-funded initiative whose results are now completely publicly accessible.