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March 2, 2017

Writing human genome might be possible within 10 years

In the coming months, scientists will try to take the HGP-Write (Human Genome Project-Write) from proposal to project. If this succeeds, we might be able to expect a completely synthesized human genome within ten years, at a cost of about 1 billion dollars.

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HGP-Write could have wide-ranging, real-world impact. But in its current form, it’s primarily a call for technological advancement in synthetic biology, website Wired writes.  In May 2016, scientists, lawyers and government representatives first discussed at Harvard the Human Genome Project-Write (HGP-Write), a plan to build whole genomes out of chemically synthesised DNA. It will build on the $3 billion (£2.3bn) Human Genome Project, which mapped each letter in the human genome.

A Science paper formalized the Harvard groups proposal: to dramatically advance DNA-synthesis technologies, so that the artificial production of genomes becomes easier, faster, and cheaper. At 12 million base pairs long, yeast is so far the largest genome scientists have tried to produce synthetically. Currently, scientists can synthesise short strands of DNA, up to about 200 base pairs long, but the average gene has several thousand base pairs.

Even this limited process is inefficient, costly and slow. It’s also vital, because in biological sciences, synthesised DNA is the foundation of experiments that drive everything from cancer research to vaccine development. For scientists, it’s like working with a blunt yet necessary instrument.

Ethical questions

Artificial production of genomes also raises the ethically unsettling question of gene patenting, designer humans and parentless babies.  Moving beyond reading DNA to writing DNA is a natural next step," Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health believes. He warns, however, that any project with real-world implications would require "extensive discussion from different perspectives, most especially including the general public".

Applications beyond the lab are a at the moment distant reality though. Synthesising a human genome may even prove unworkable.  HGP-Write’s central goal is to improve synthesis technologies so it’s easier to write longer strands of genetic material.  DNA is made by using software that designs the layout of a strand, followed by machines in a laboratory that use this template to synthesise and assemble it. This is at best clunky process that limits production to short stretches of DNA.

Andrew Hessel, a researcher with the Bio/Nano research group at software company Autodesk, sees the potential for enhanced software allowing more precise genome design and printing tools that, for instance, harness enzymes to build DNA the way it happens in our cells. "If we can achieve this, it should be possible to write large genomes in hours," he says.

Money

First, the money needs to be found to begin the project. Autodesk has pledged $250,000 in funding for the project, but organisers want to secure $10 million by the end of 2017. In the meantime, they’ll expand the HGP-Write conversation. "I want it to be as open and transparent as possible," says Hessel, "and to keep up as much interest in this powerful universal technology, which will enable us to bring our intention into the machinery we call life."

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