Nine years after the Human Genome Project, 25 leading synthetic biologists, including a few from the original project, have decided to now create an entire genome from scratch. The project, known as the Human Genome Project–Write (HGP-write), first generated interest at a talk at Harvard medical school in Boston. It will now be given the go ahead provided it raises its initial funding of £100 million, which the team suggests would require government funding as well as private investment. The paper published also suggests that the project would cost less than the $3-billion cost of the first Human Genome project. This, along with the 10-year plan to complete the genome, makes the project very ambitious; however, the team writes it will require technological development early on in the project “to propel large-scale genome design and engineering”.
Creating a genome has already been done, researchers have already created functioning bacterial and viral genomes consisting of a few thousand base pairs but this project plans to create much larger genomes, up to 100 billion base pairs, including “whole genome engineering of human cell lines and other organisms of agricultural and public health significance”. The team says it will create a human genome which best represents the human population by using a computer program called Autodesk which will select the most abundant gene variants.
The main aim of this entire billion-dollar project is to drive down the cost and make it easier to synthesize large scale genetic information. However, the paper also explains various pilot projects to make the hefty price tag seem more modest. One of which includes the devolvement of ‘ultra-safe’ cells which would be virus resistant, cancer resistant and free from any potentially harmful genes. These ultra safe cells could then be used to secrete proteins in drug treatments and, being viral resistant, would prevent any contamination. These cells would also be significant for stem cell medicine, says Paul Freemont who runs the synthetic biology centre at Imperial College London. One of the key aspects of stem-cell therapies is that the cells are able to proliferate rapidly – but this is also characteristic of cancer cells, so therapeutic stem cells turning cancerous have always been a concern. “A synthetic biology variant encoded to never become cancerous would be preferable” he says.
Another pilot project suggested is using the idea of creating a fully synthetic genome as a replacement to gene editing. Gene editing methods such as using CRISPR/Cas9 can be quite expensive and difficult to work with, but if the HGP-write project lowers the cost of creating an entire genome it may just be easier and cheaper to create one then having to edit a pre-existing genome.
But the idea of creating a fully synthetic human cell has been hit with criticism by some. The paper does not suggest nor deny the idea of being able to create humans which may be more advanced, but due to such issues not being addressed some have said that the group is not well equipped to lead such a project. Being able to create a fully synthetic genome also poses the question to who owns it. Unlike the first Human Genome project the information cannot be accessed by everyone, but instead the genome is a physical entity which can be patented and owned by an individual or group. This may hinder scientific progress especially if it proves beneficial to any corporations involved who may not wish to openly share the information.
Some are still not convinced that a project of this size is even needed. If gene editing methods are being developed with some proving very promising, then what is the need to create a genome if it is possible to edit one? But it has been argued that being able to create a genome would allow us to not only better understand it, but will also prove beneficial for future projects we may not have yet thought about. The HGP-write project may get the funding needed to start this year, but being able to create a fully synthetic human genome is still something of the distant future.