Harvard meeting on synthesizing human genome questioned over secrecy

A project that would synthesize a complete human genome and test it in cells within 10 years was discussed at a meeting of scientists, ethicists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs at Harvard University on May 10. Commentators raised concerns that the meeting was closed to the press and public, before meeting organizers clarified that discussions of the meeting are to be published in a peer-reviewed journal article, the details of which are under embargo.


Dr. Kris Saha, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison (webpage)

Expertise: gene editing, synthetic biology, human stem cell engineering, disease modeling, biomaterials.

“The idea of making a synthetic human cell is certainly an ambitious project. It’s a big leap from what I’ve seen in terms of making a synthetic cell. The last popular effort in this area was by Craig Venter’s group who synthesized a simple bacterial cell.

“The evolutionary leap between a bacterial cell, which does not have a nucleus, and a human cell is enormous. The human genome is organized differently and is much more complex. It has a very intricate way in which the DNA is packaged, with various epigenetic marks. These areas are actively being researched, and we don’t entirely understand how the genome is organized inside of a typical human cell. So given the heroic effort that was needed to make a synthetic bacterial cell, a similar if not more intense effort will be required – even to make a simple mammalian or eukaryotic cell let alone a human cell. 

“However, technologies such as cloning – in the human case to make embryonic stem cells – were also hard to develop initially, but are now routinely performed. A ten-year timeline was mentioned for this project. I think that’s far enough away that its hard to predict what will happen but close enough that we need to be thinking about what the implications are. Clearly many people are thinking about implications, as evidenced by this closed meeting. 

“The ability to write the genome, essentially by typing it into a computer, would be revolutionary.  If it were possible, it can be used for many applications – from engineering microbes that can produce industrially relevant chemical and biological compounds to generating engineered human cells for therapeutic applications, such as for treating cancer and tissue regeneration.”


Dr. Sriram Kosuri, Assistant Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) (webpage):

Expertise: Biochemistry, systems biology and biological regulation, synthetic biology, molecular biology, genomics.

“There are many challenges to chemically synthesize a complete human genome from scratch, so it’s interesting as a thought experiment. Currently, our synthetic capacity, our design capabilities, and the ability to get that much DNA into cell lines are all limiting. If we were to solve these issues, there would be many ancillary benefits that likely will be more useful than the end result itself. It’s possible that a synthetic human cell line could be achieved in 10 years, but it would need a concerted effort.

“The bigger question is what could this technology be used for? My understanding of the meeting was to discuss the scientific and technical challenges to see if such a project was worthwhile and technically feasible. To me not knowing the exact plans of the group, it is unclear what the big payoffs, real dangers or moral quagmires of the project are. There are possibilities that you could make human cell lines more viral resistant or derive slightly different properties that could make it interesting either from a biological or engineering perspective. However, my understanding is that there is no real technical ability nor desire to work on making genetically engineered humans, so I’m not sure what all the controversy is about.”


Dr. Karmella Haynes, Assistant Professor, School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, Arizona State University (webpage):

Expertise: Engineering gene and protein-based biological devices using synthetic, systems, and quantitative biology

“It is difficult to give an exact timeline for our ability to synthesize a human genome. However, in terms of feasibility we are close. The Yeast 2.0 project originated by scientist Jeff Boeke was a key milestone, probably more so than the synthetic microbe genome created by Craig Venter, in that the yeast project produced the first fully synthesized linear chromosome, which is much more like a human chromosome than the microbial one. The Yeast 2.0 project demonstrates that building linear human-like chromosomes is technically feasible.

“Being able to build a human genome would advance our understanding of life in a deeply enriching and positive way. Human history has shown us that certain myths about who we think we are can be just as, if not more dangerous than the harm we predict will come from technology. Demonstrating that building blocks can be assembled into the same code that organizes our own bodies could be wonderfully humbling. On the technical side, synthesized human genomes can provide test systems to model diseases so that medical research can be done with engineered cells in a dish instead of human volunteers and non-human animals.”


Declared interests (see GENeS register of interests policy):

Sriram Kosuri: I was invited to attend the meeting but declined due to prior commitments. My lab also works in an area of research that could benefit from increased funding in this space.

Karmella Haynes: I declare no competing interests. I hold no stake in any companies that profit from DNA synthesis. My research support is 100% academic and my grants are publicly reported by the NIH, NSF, and ABRC. My stance on synthetic biology and bioengineering is sufficiently described by my affiliation info.

No further interests declared.



Should We Synthesize A Human Genome?‘ by Drew Endy and Laurie Zoloth on Tuesday 10 May 2016


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