The journal Science published a paper written by 25 researchers announcing their intention to begin a 10-year project aimed at synthetically creating an entire human genome—the complete set of genes present in a cell.
Although the researchers are clear the goal of the Human Genome Project-Write (HGP-Write) is to synthesize a human genome in a lab dish—not to create a baby—many bioethicists and other experts are raising skeptical eyebrows.
Making a human genome could have serious religious and ethical implications, said Paige Cunningham, executive director of The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.
“Although the prospect is remote, scientists could potentially design people on computers who would be born without biological parents,” she said.
The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, enabled scientists to read the sequence of the 3 billion base pairs of chemicals that make up the complete set of human DNA. It laid the foundation for HGP-Write, with which researchers hope to actually write or synthesize all 6 billion DNA letters of a human genome. They intend to use a host cell line and gradually swap out large chunks of its genome with lab-synthesized DNA.
The researchers say writing their own genomes is a logical extension of the genetic engineering tools scientists have developed over the past 40 years. They admit HGP-write will require public involvement and consideration of ethical, legal, and social implications from the start. They also note the many potential benefits of the project, such as enabling researchers to grow human organs for transplant, engineer human cell lines that are immune to viruses or resistant to cancer, and make vaccine production much quicker and cheaper.
Regardless of the potential for good applications, many critics are concerned about possible adverse consequences. The list of potential benefits is “not an adequate reason to take such an enormous moral step,” Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University in Chicago, told Science Magazine.
Even though the researchers are clear they only intend to create a genome in a dish, Cunningham fears what could happen if such technology fell into the wrong hands. And the gene editing process already is fatal for many embryos, she noted.
“How many more will die in this research?” Cunningham asked.
If someone eventually used the technology to create a human, who would own the DNA? Cunningham notes researchers likely would patent the technology because that’s the only way to protect intellectual property.
“I am deeply troubled by the possibility of patenting human beings,” she said.
Cunningham believes it is essential for everyone to begin asking the deep questions about what it means to be human. What would it mean for a person to be lab-produced rather than procreated? The Christian model is that children are intended to come into this world through the union of a man and a woman who are married to each other. This research and experimentation “is not the model,” she said.
Researchers also face question about who has the moral authority to decide what kind of human genome scientists should create.
“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,” Marcy Darnovsky, executive director for the Center for Genetics and Society, said in a statement.
— by Julie Borg