Synthetic human genome – an ethically explosive technology of the future
Synthetic human genome - an ethically explosive future technology

Researchers launch project to artificially create human genome in ten years

Scientists aim to build on success of human genome project: this time, however, it’s not about reading, but writing. Its goal is the synthesis of a complete human genome in a cell line. They deal with the ethical implications only half-heartedly.

If researchers combine the terms "synthetic", "human" and "Genetic material" In a sentence, this evokes unpleasant associations – from the homunculus to clones to the designer baby. Now these terms even define the goal of an ambitious project: within the next ten years, leading scientists want to advance the technology to such an extent that the synthesis of a human genome will become feasible. Artistic man is explicitly not one of their goals, but the researchers make only limited efforts to dispel fears in this direction.

The scientists still have little to show: an announcement in the renowned Science magazine, a conference behind closed doors, and a – so far still virtual – center for planning and coordination. However, this project is given weight by the prominence of the researchers involved, first and foremost the genome pioneer George Church from Boston. Church is best known for his provocative projects and thought experiments: Re-creation of the Mammoth, Gene Drive, Backbreeding of the Neanderthal – just to name a few.

HGP-write to rewrite the genome

Once again, the scientists around Church have rough plans, and they have chosen the Human Genome Project as their model. Its impact on medicine remains limited (From Genome to Therapy), but it has profoundly changed biological research. And what is much more significant in practical terms: In the course of the Human Genome Project, the cost of deciphering the genome has dropped dramatically. The sequencing of the first human genome cost three billion US dollars; today, private companies have already broken through the thousand-dollar barrier.

A drastic reduction in costs is also the declared – and less spectacular – main goal of the new project. The new project is called HGP-write in reference to the original human genome project, which was quickly renamed HGP-read. Its essential task is to generate a high demand for synthesized DNA. The simple logic is that this alone will drive the development of new technologies and reduce costs to a thousandth within ten years.

Resistant to cancer and viruses

Technical details dominate the announcement in Science magazine, but towards the end of the text a utopian vision shimmers through. Formally hidden among the secondary goals in the fifth place (but visually prominently highlighted in a box), Church has accommodated one of the favorite projects – the ultra-safe cell. A utopian construct that no virus can harm and that is supposed to be resistant to cancer.

The prerequisite for this is a radical restructuring of the genome. The genetic code that directs the production of proteins is to be consistently simplified, and at the same time many of the enzymes and transfer molecules involved are to be removed from the genome. The consequences for viruses were dramatic: since their genome is still based on the complete code, the pathogens lack the building blocks to reproduce in the cell. The change would be so profound that they would have no realistic chance to adapt to the new code. The problem of virus infections would be solved in one fell swoop.

Other interventions look almost trivial: It is planned to insert additional suppressor genes to prevent the development of cancer. Genes for prions, which potentially cause diseases, are to be eliminated. There are also plans to completely remove obviously useless areas (i.e. up to 80% of the genome) from the genetic material. Damit sollen ultrasichere Zellen bereit fur neue Anwendungen werden – in der Grundlagenforschung, der Stammzelltherapie und bei der Erzeugung von industriell oder medizinisch nutzbaren Substanzen (Stoffwechsel nach Mab).

An enormous moral gesture

But the problem is obvious: Creating an artificial genome removes one of the last hurdles preventing the creation of artificial humans. The misuse of this technology is becoming a real danger, as also admitted by one of the main initiators of HGP-write. Even more disturbing is another possibility – that the genetic optimization of humans will become commonplace.

And so massive criticism is not long in coming. The Californian researcher Drew Endy – himself a prominent pioneer of synthetic biology – and the bioethicist Laurie Zoloth already formulated the central question in May: Why does it have to be a human genome?? There were sufficient alternatives that were less controversial and of immediate benefit. The synthesis of the human genome is inseparable from the symbolic importance that almost all religion attaches to the creation of man. It would be a "Enormous moral gesture", the planning of which should not be reserved for a select circle of specialists.

Involving the public – only lip service so far

The initiators of HGP-write are well aware of this problem. Right at the beginning of their Science publication, they devote a long section to the ethical and social questions that a synthetic genome would raise. But the declarations remain vague, and the general formulations resemble dutiful phrases. The stark contrast with the sophisticated concepts and thoughtful details that dominate their technical plans is unmistakable. It must be clear even to the initiators that little is gained by proclaiming noble ethical goals. The real challenge lies in the concrete implementation.

It does not seem as if the initiators of HGP-write give this challenge a high priority. The proceedings of a preparatory conference reinforce this impression. In May, more than 100 academics, industrialists and politicians met at the prestigious Harvard University – behind closed doors. Public discussion was explicitly not desired. Allegedly, this was done under prere from Science, which imposes strict conditions on publications in the magazine. Extensive video recordings of the conference, which are now available online, are intended to dispel the accusation of secrecy. The message remains clear, however – the public is assigned the role of spectator.

Who should pay for it?

It is still completely unclear whether HGP-write can ever be put into practice. The costs represent a high hurdle. Already for the first year they are estimated at 100 million US dollars, in total they could easily exceed the billion mark. Who will pay for it is unclear. The head of the American Institutes of Health, the sponsor of the first genome project, has already turned down the project – not least because of the open ethical questions.

Nevertheless, it cannot be excluded that in the foreseeable future a technology will be available that transforms human cells into controlled biological systems. And all indications are that the ethical discussion will lag behind the technical development. This is a repeat of the mistake that made the introduction of genetic engineering so controversial. So the consequences are foreseeable, and they will hardly be demanding to the goals of HGP-write. But anyone who prioritizes technical feasibility alone should not be surprised if an irritated public reacts with fundamental refusal.