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A double helix is stained blue against a black background.

Tuesday morning, more than 200 biologists, businesspeople, and ethicists will converge on the New York Genome Center in New York City to jump-start what they hope will be biology’s next blockbuster: Genome Project-write (GP-write), a still-unfunded sequel to the Human Genome Project where instead of reading a human genome, scientists create one from scratch and incorporate it into cells for various research and medical purposes. For example, proponents suggest that they could design a synthetic genome to make human cells resistant to viral infections, radiation, and cancer. Those cells could be used immediately for industrial drug production. With additional genome tinkering to avoid rejection by the immune system, they could be used clinically as a universal stem cell therapy.

The project got off to a bumpy start last year and despite the central rallying cry of a synthetic human genome, many of those attending the conference will bring in different expectations and ambitions. Some resent the unwanted attention and criticism that the project’s public objective has brought, saying it distracts from the goal of improving DNA synthesis technologies, because cheaper...