From reading DNA to writing it

The « Human Genome Project-Write (HGP-write) » has just come into being. Its French translation: “the project of writing human genome”. The announcement was made on June 2, 2016, by scientists and industrial business partners in the Science magazine. The purpose of this project is nothing less than the creation of a synthetic human genome. Last month a secret meeting (no-media allowed), was held at Harvard with hundreds of scientists, who are presenting these scientific prospects which raise serious ethical concerns. In some respects this project is an extension of the Human Genome Project (“HGP-read”) which contributed to sequencing human DNA in its entirety.

Their objective is to construct a human genome from scratch, by choosing its « writing », meaning creating and combining DNA building blocks, or “letters”, string them together in different combinations in order to build up a complete genome, ready to be inserted into a cell. According to researchers, this could lead to numerous promising applications, such as producing cell lines resistant to viruses and cancer, creating human organs for transplants, producing vaccines or even developing pharmaceuticals from human cells.

Scientists have already mastered the construction of short strands of DNA, but at the moment, creating an entire human genome would be extremely expensive. The main objective for the new project, sponsored by the « Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology », is to raise $ 100,000,000 this year.

Some other scientists such as biologist Drew Endy from Stanford University are very much concerned. He remarks that “before launching into this momentous project, with such enormous ethical implications, some issues need to be addressed, including whether or not the research should indeed take place”. He criticizes that “The authors fail to pose these essential questions. In fact, in their proposal, they don’t pose any questions at all”. The main ethical preoccupation raised is that of potentially “creating children without biological parents”.    

The authors recall the serious ethical debates raised by the scientific advances in the genetic engineering field, such as CRISPR-Cas9, and recognize both the importance and the urgency to conduct public consultations, and include all concerned parties.

Although these techniques are only at the experimental phase, it is relevant to emphasize the timeliness of an international alert to take the potential effects of this new technology into account. Ethical rules are of primary importance for deterring potential drifts resulting from this technology, which might result in creating genetically-engineered embryos, or being “perfected” with custom-made genomes created from scratch.

In France Alliance VITA has launched an international premiere in France: a citizen awareness-raising campaign to warn against this danger: Stop GM Babies.