Hold a secret meeting with over a hundred top scientists – and don’t invite the public, or the media.
Well, that’s exactly what a group of 130 scientists did over coffee and donuts at Harvard University a few weeks ago.
The subject? Plans for synthetic human genomes (and you thought it was the cure for male baldness). The topic caught my attention not because I’m constantly browsing Cell Monthly, but because it showed an unusual up-tick in our Science Trends sector. Gene switches, which are an element in the synthetic human genome, is up +8 points at a 47 rating, a new high for the somewhat obscure but immensely important science topic. Media values are surprisingly low at $24k for the July period given the 47 rating, and high broadcast segment rating (73). This is due to the very low online news, Twitter and online search segment rating values. There is apparently minimal downstream repeat coverage in online news sources.
The announcement, published Thursday in the journal Science, is the latest sign that biotechnology is going through a rapidly advancing but ethically fraught period. Scientists have been honing their techniques for manipulating the complex molecules that serve as the code for all life on the planet, and this same issue of the journal Science reports a breakthrough in editing RNA, a molecule that is the close cousin of DNA.
The promoters of synthetic genomes envision a project that would eventually be on the same scale as the Human Genome Project of the 1990s, which led to the sequencing of the first human genomes. The difference this time would be that, instead of “reading” genetic codes, which is what sequencing does, the scientists would be “writing” them. They have dubbed this the “Genome Project-write.”
“The goal of HGP-write is to reduce the costs of engineering and testing large genomes, including a human genome, in cell lines, more than 1,000-fold within ten years, while developing new technologies and an ethical framework for genome-scale engineering as well as transformative medical applications,” the group wrote in a draft of a news release. The project will be administered by a non-profit organization called the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology, the news release said.
The plan drew a negative response from the head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, who had led the earlier Human Genome Project. In a statement released by NIH, Collins said it was premature to launch such an initiative.