Sunday, May 15, 2016

Creating Synthetic Humans: Secret Harvard Meeting

On Tuesday, well over a hundred elite scientists were invited to discuss synthesizing the human genome — creating life from basic chemicals without biological parents, thus advancing beyond designer babies to creatures such as a synthetic Einstein (or Frankenstein).  Although the ethics of such advancement is controversial, what upset the greater scientific community and the media was their exclusion from the meeting.
“. . . would it be OK to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome? If so how many Einstein genomes would it be OK to make and install in cells, and who could get to make and control these cells?”
-- Drew Endy, Stanford scientist & Laurie Zoloth, Northwestern University bioethicist
For background, click headlines below to read previous articles:

Genetic Scientists Worshiped as Creators of Life

Scientists Create Artificial Human Eggs and Sperm

Secret Designer Babies via Gene-editing Science

Human 'Lab Rats' Tortured for Weeks, Then Killed

Embryo-killing Essential for Life, Scientists Say

3-Parent Babies are Ethical: Experts to Obama FDA

-- From "Secret Harvard meeting on synthetic human genomes incites ethics debate" by Joel Achenbach, Washington Post 5/13/16

Drew Endy, associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, and Laurie Zoloth, a professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University, published an essay this week raising questions about whether the gathering at Harvard had gone too far. After citing the beneficial possibilities of such research, they raised the thornier ethical questions . . .

Meanwhile, Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Center for Genetics and Society, a politically progressive organization that has had a skeptical view of biotechnology, issued a statement Friday criticizing the Harvard gathering: "If these reports are accurate, the meeting looks like a move to privatize the current conversation about heritable genetic modification."

To read the entire article above, CLICK HERE.

From "Critics attack Harvard’s secret meeting on human genome synthesis" by Lisa M. Krieger, Santa Cruz Sentinel 5/14/16

The goal of the project — discussed Tuesday by an invitation-only group of about 130 scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs and government officials from five continents — “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years,” according to the invitation.

Organizers included Harvard Medical School genetics Professor George Church and San Francisco-based Andrew Hessel of Autodesk’s Bio/Nano Research Group.

It portends a future with sci-fi implications, when a human genome — the complete set of genetic instructions for a human being — could be assembled like a Tinkertoy.

“Genomics is in the middle of four revolutions: sequencing, editing, synthesizing and understanding,” said Hank Greely, director of Stanford’s Center for Law and the Biosciences. “The first is well-advanced, the second coming on strong, the third just starting and the fourth — and most important — still scratching the surface.”

To read the entire article above, CLICK HERE.

From "Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome" by Andrew Pollack, New York Times 5/13/16

Organizers said the project could have a big scientific payoff and would be a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project, which was aimed at reading the sequence of the three billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint of human life. The new project, by contrast, would involve not reading, but rather writing the human genome — synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals.

But such an attempt would raise numerous ethical issues. Could scientists create humans with certain kinds of traits, perhaps people born and bred to be soldiers? Or might it be possible to make copies of specific people?

The project does not yet have funding, Dr. Church said, though various companies and foundations would be invited to contribute, and some have indicated interest. The federal government will also be asked. A spokeswoman for the National Institutes of Health declined to comment, saying the project was in too early a stage.

Right now, synthesizing DNA is difficult and error-prone. . . . But the cost and capabilities are rapidly improving. Dr. Endy of Stanford, who is a co-founder of a DNA synthesis company called Gen9, said the cost of synthesizing genes has plummeted from $4 per base pair in 2003 to 3 cents now. But even at that rate, the cost for three billion letters would be $90 million. He said if costs continued to decline at the same pace, that figure could reach $100,000 in 20 years.

To read the entire article above, CLICK HERE.

From "Top scientists hold closed meeting to discuss building a human genome from scratch" by Ike Swetlitz, STAT 5/13/16

Synthesizing genomes involves building them from the ground up — chemically combining molecules to create DNA. Similar work by Craig Venter in 2010 created what was hailed as the first synthetic cell, a bacterium with a comparatively small genome.

In recent months, Church has been vocal in saying that the much-hyped genome-editing technology called CRISPR, which is only a few years old and which he helped develop, would soon be obsolete. Instead of changing existing genomes through CRISPR, Church has said, scientists could build exactly the genomes they want from scratch, by stringing together off-the-shelf DNA letters.

The topic is a heavy one, touching on fundamental philosophical questions of meaning and being. If we can build a synthetic genome — and eventually, a creature — from the ground up, then what does it mean to be human?

To read the entire article above, CLICK HERE.

From "How Close Are We To An Entirely Synthetic Human?" by James Maynard, Tech Times 5/15/16

Human genomes are normally passed on from parent to child, transferring inheritable traits. Creating such a genome may be possible in as little as a decade, organizers of the meeting contend. However, even if the creation of such a genetic code transpired in the coming years, these sequences could only be placed within a cell to test the genome. This would still be a far cry from the creation of an entire synthetically-formed human being.

Once the technology is available to easily and inexpensively synthesize human genomes, a bevy of ethical dilemmas will present themselves. First, if it is possible to sequence and produce genomes of the best and brightest people in the world, how many copies of the same sequence should be produced, and who would be able to obtain them? Will parents who wish to raise a scientist be allowed to utilize genes patterned after famed physicist Albert Einstein? What about sports-minded parents who want a child with the baseball-related skills of Red Sox slugger David Ortiz?

Researchers are still a long way from the development of an entire synthetic human genome, however. The first man-made species, JCVI-syn1.0, was created in 2010.

Those people who worry about the development of this technology have a long time to wait before their fears may be realized, but that day is coming.

To read the entire article above, CLICK HERE.

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