A "Synthetic Human Genome Project?" Who Decides?
In a brief article published in the “Perspectives” section of Science, a group of scientists and corporate figures has announced a ten-year project to construct a synthetic human genome from scratch. Today’s publication follows revelations in May of a closed-door meeting about the plan at Harvard University that was widely criticized for excluding the public and media.
“These self-selected scientists and entrepreneurs are launching a corporate-dominated moonshot that could open the door to producing synthetic human beings,” said Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society. “They are doing this without the involvement or even the knowledge of the public or civil society, without consultation with other scientists, and in the absence of public policy.”
A press release from the multi-billion dollar software giant Autodesk, also released today, reveals that the company has committed $250,000 for the project's planning efforts.
According to media reports, the project was originally called Human Genome Synthesis Project. The promoters have now adopted what they may see as a more neutral name, “Human Genome Project-Write,” and refer to the Human Genome Project as “HGP-read.” We suggest the term “Synthetic Human Genome Project” or “Syn-HGP.”
“The focus on synthesizing the human genome seems in part like a public relations stunt to get multi-billion-dollar range funding – including from public sources – and a lot of media attention,” Darnovsky said. “Most of the principal figures behind Syn-HGP have deep ties to companies that will reap the profits of driving down the cost of large-scale DNA synthesis,” she continued.
The Science article was reportedly delayed by a request that the authors include statements about the social and ethical implications of their proposal.
“The article gestures toward `broad public discourse,’ but this amounts to boilerplate bioethics at best,” Darnovsky said. “Scientists have become skilled at managing public reaction, but what we need is meaningful participation and deliberation in the planning and design of powerful new technologies. As it stands, this is a case of what should be weighty policy and public decisions being driven by private enthusiasm and corporate interests.”
As media reports after news about Syn-HGP emerged from the closed-door Harvard meeting have noted, constructing a human genome and inserting it into cells could eventually lead to custom-designed synthetic human beings with no biological parents.
“Some of the speculative goals of this project sound innocuous or benign,” Darnovsky said. “Others would be dangerously unacceptable. There would of course be enormous technical challenges to producing synthetic humans, but it’s clear that no self-appointed group has a warrant to make decisions that could literally reshape the human genome.”
The Center for Genetics and Society is a non-profit public affairs and policy advocacy organization working to encourage responsible uses and effective societal governance of human genetic and reproductive biotechnologies.
For CGS's previous comment on the closed meeting at Harvard, see: Comment - Closed Harvard Meeting on Human Genome Synthesis [May 13, 2016]
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