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article imageSynthetic genome project raises concerns

By Tim Sandle     Jun 3, 2016 in Science
A consortium of scientists, backed by corporate sponsors, have announced a 10-year project to construct a synthetic human genome from scratch. The launch at Harvard University has raised some concerns.
Synthetic genomics is a new field of biological science, very much in the early stages. The general aim is to use aspects of genetic modification on pre-existing life forms with the intention of creating a desired behavior on the part of the 'new' life form. This is a different approach to gene modification, in that gene modification transfers a naturally occurring gene from one life form to another.
According to the science journal [i]Nature[/i], the technology required to create a synthetic genome is conceptually different to existing biological science: "Synthetic biology often adopts the language of engineers: rather than talking about genes, networks and biosynthetic pathways, practitioners prefer to talk about parts, devices and modules."
How close scientists are to creating a synthetic genome is a unclear. However, the first concerted effort to create a new biological entity has stepped closer. The Washington Post reports that a few weeks ago, in May 2016, some 130 scientists, entrepreneurs and policy leaders held closed-door meeting at Harvard University. The purpose was to discuss a plan to create the first synthetic human genomes.
The initial secrecy of the meeting brought in a range of public criticism. This forced the group to issue a statement via the journal Science, indicating their plans. In essence this is to reduce the cost of synthesizing genomes, where the costs are seen as holding back advances in development in biotechnology, such as growing artificial organs for surgery.
Here the group clarified that their goal: "is to reduce the costs of engineering and testing large genomes, including a human genome, in cell lines, more than 1,000-fold within ten years, while developing new technologies and an ethical framework for genome-scale engineering as well as transformative medical applications."
Furthermore, one of the signatories, Susan Rosser from Edinburgh University, told The Guardian: "The major benefit is an enhanced understanding of things like chromosome structure and how the genome works – it is a basic understanding effort in the same way as sequencing the human genome has given us a huge amount of information, and thrown up some surprises."
However, the announcement has brought criticism from government and other scientists. This included Francis Collins, who is head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, who said such announcements were "premature" and that the project was something the U.S. government could not support.
Further concerns have been raised by the Center for Genetics and Society. A spokesperson for this body of scientists, Marcy Darnovsky stated: "The worry is that we're going to be synthesizing entire optimized human genomes — manufacturing chromosomes that could be used ultimately to produce synthetic human beings that they see as improved models." The primary concern here is with the implications, should the project be taken to the extreme, of constructing a human genome and inserting it into cells could eventually lead to custom-designed synthetic human beings with no biological parents.
The issue has created an understandably fiery debate on Twitter. AP for Students, for example, tweeted "The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern." However, others, such as Kenneth Jones, MD, called for a more balanced debate and said people, should forget "sci-fi horror."
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