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Designer and Discarded Genomes

by Ruha Benjamine-flux Architecture
October 12th, 2016

Untitled Document

Field Note Excerpt I: By Invitation Only

Harvard Medical School (Boston, Massachusetts, USA), May 10, 2016.

Anticipation was in the air. Old friends, new acquaintances, and profitable collaborations. “History is being made,” said one speaker after another. History and synthetic genomes.

I did not realize until sitting at the airport on my way to Boston that this was intended to be a “closed session.” The organizers asked participants not to contact any media outlets or tweet about the meeting:

"We intentionally did not invite the media, because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted as the discussions evolve."

In response, synthetic biologist Drew Endy, tweeted:

“If you need secrecy to discuss your proposed research you are doing something wrong.”

Originally, the meeting was called the “Human Genome Project II” (HGP II), a successor to the first initiative that culminated in the early 2000s with a map of humanity’s genetic blueprint. But in response to criticism (source unknown), the HGP II organizers rebranded the current initiative “Human Genome Project-Write.” We were moving beyond reading what is to composing what should be.

Designer DNA. Couture cells. Prada proteins. Must-have mitochondria.

One of the first pilot projects to come out of HGP-Write raised quite a bit of discussion. A team of researchers were working to synthesize a “prototrophic human” that can produce all needed amino acids so there would be no need to eat.

I hear someone sitting next to me whisper to their neighbor, “But what if I like to eat?”

The researcher continues, “We’ve been experimenting with nutrition and food since the Old Testament.” What’s the big deal, he implies.

The entire project is framed in the context of global food scarcity. But several of those in attendance politely object:

“I would venture to guess people suffering from malnutrition are not looking for synthetic genomes.”

Another person exclaimed, “I urge everyone to think very hard about the problems you’re trying to solve, like ‘feeding the world.’ There’s enough food, it’s just not well enough distributed... Think hard about whether a technological solution is even necessary.”

The presentations continue. Technological fixes for social problems, where “fixing” is not only about solving, but also holding some things in place.

A schedule change is announced: the addition of a last-minute lunch panel focused on ethics.

“It’s unacceptable that there is only one panel on ethics at the end of the day!” (some influential person must have told the organizers).

I am used to it by now: the ethics panel at the very end of the schedule. It usually runs over onto the last page of the program, standing between exhausted (and hungry) meeting-goers and a fancy reception. But not this time. Now we also have a last-minute lunch panel, and unlike all the other sessions where pins can be heard dropping, the ethics are hard to hear.

Between bags of chips popping open and sandwich wrappers peeling apart, three panelists address the relevance of what one participant referred to as “sexy eugenics questions” for HGP-Write.

Among the many ethical issues on the table, the tension between underreporting research and overpromising breakthroughs to the public was of great concern to those deeply invested in the initiative.

What, after all, is the perfect amount of information to generate support without frightening people? “Surely we shouldn't mention prototrophic humans right off the bat!” someone in the second row chimed in. “Even I’m freaked out by that.”

Then there was the ethics panelist who described his company’s effort to grow therapeutic human cells in pigs. “Will pigs have human feelings?” an audience member asked to nervous laughter.

“If this meeting was in Europe you’d have protestors at the building entrance,” said a man standing in the back.

And finally, the question of who is (and should be) captaining this ship was asked, again and again.


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