Scientists hold private discussion about creating synthetic DNA

This was published a few days after the meeting

Scientists are now contemplating the fabrication of a human genome, meaning they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.

The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.

While the project is still in the idea phase, and also involves efforts to improve DNA synthesis in general, it was discussed at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The nearly 150 attendees were told not to contact the news media or to post on Twitter during the meeting.

Organizers said the project could have a big scientific payoff and would be a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project, which was aimed at reading the sequence of the three billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint of human life. The new project, by contrast, would involve not reading, but rather writing the human genome — synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals…

It was made clear to participants that public discussion, expanded scientific discussion, would begin with publication of discussion documents in SCIENCE…allowing access to a wider audience than participants could have gauged in advance or managed to accommodate.

The project was initially called HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project, with HGP referring to the Human Genome Project. An invitation to the meeting at Harvard said that the primary goal “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”

But by the time the meeting was held, the name had been changed to “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.”…

Scientists and companies can now change the DNA in cells, for example, by adding foreign genes or changing the letters in the existing genes. This technique is routinely used to make drugs, such as insulin for diabetes, inside genetically modified cells, as well as to make genetically modified crops. And scientists are now debating the ethics of new technology that might allow genetic changes to be made in embryos.

But synthesizing a gene, or an entire genome, would provide the opportunity to make even more extensive changes in DNA…

…Cost and capabilities are rapidly improving. Dr. Endy of Stanford, who is a co-founder of a DNA synthesis company called Gen9, said the cost of synthesizing genes has plummeted from $4 per base pair in 2003 to 3 cents now. But even at that rate, the cost for three billion letters would be $90 million. He said if costs continued to decline at the same pace, that figure could reach $100,000 in 20 years…

“Our ability to understand what to build is so far behind what we can build,” said Dr. Jeremy Minshull, who was invited to the meeting at Harvard but did not attend. “I just don’t think that being able to make more and more and more and cheaper and cheaper and cheaper is going to get us the understanding we need.”

Lots of pertinent questions raised within the scientific community. The ethicist wing of junk science will be full-bore on the topic. As will be those more concerned with reason and material reality than trying to construct a script to sell to Disney.

The NY TIMES covered its buns doing truthful headlines in some editions and scare headlines after they saw competitors successfully processing clickbait with tales of a “secret” meeting. I walked back to a date closer to the original meeting and used this one for the post.

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