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May 27, 2016

Scientists discuss project to create synthetic human genome

To create human life without the need for parents? It might become possible sooner then you think. In a private meeting at Harvard Medical School in Boston some 150 attendees recently discussed the possibilities of fabricating a human genome, in other words: to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.

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Though the meeting was suppossed to be private and attendees were told not to contact the news media or to post on Twitter during the meeting, the New York Times relates in length what was discussed and points out how such a project could be spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community.

The organizers  of the meeting said the project could have a big scientific payoff and would be a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project – aimed at reading the sequence of some three billion chemical letters in the human DNA blueprint. This time around however, the human genome would not be read, but rather written. The project would also involve efforts to improve DNA synthesis in general.

Ethical issues

Both possibilities and project are still in the very early idea stages, but writes the NYT, any attempt in this direction would raise numerous ethical issues.  Basically its the age old question: because something can be done, should it also be done, or at least attempted? In this case: if humans can be created through the use of synthetic genome, can scientists then not create humans with certain kinds of traits, like people born and bred as soldiers?

George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and an organizer of the ‘writing genome’ project, says  the project is not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genome. Instead it aims to improve the ability to synthesize DNA in general, which could e.g. be applied to various animals, plants and microbes.

The project was initially called HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project ( with HGP referring to the Human Genome Project. The primary goal:  to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years. The name has since then been changed to ‘HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.’ The project does not yet have funding.

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