A group of high-powered biotech research and development leaders are meeting to hammer out a grand project (1). Almost certainly this work will yield useful products and scientific insights. However, the efforts will require massive financial support from a sponsor(s) able to make a long term commitment and tolerate some failures. The specifics are being decided, but the overall plan is to launch a Moonshot style endeavor to develop technology to synthesize and manipulate large DNA molecules. When these capabilities come on line, scientists will go from gene editing to literally being able to write entire genomes.
This meeting is a second try to embark on the logical next phase of the Human Genome Project. Despite the enthusiasm of an accomplished group of scientists, securing support from the U. S. government has been challenging. One problem was that the promoters were not exactly clear about what they wanted to do. Was this to be the Human Genome Project – Write, an effort with the audacious vision of synthesizing a complete human genome? Or was the scope to be something less controversial such as perfecting the means to produce much longer DNA stands and other pilot projects (2, 3)? The latest proposal is known as Genome Project – Write, a name reflecting a broader focus (1).
Proposing bold ideas like synthesizing human genomes incites criticism, but it can also generate public interest (1). The science is intrinsically interesting to the scientists, but if the scope of work is not far-reaching enough and sufficiently relevant to human health it might be hard to win support of organizations like the National Institutes of Health. During these times of fiscal uncertainty it will be challenging to secure funding for such an expensive, long-term program with uncertain deliverables.
Researchers are drawing another new map to our future. Their vision will, if it leads to action, change our lives. However, at this stage we have to wait to see what they propose and how it is received by the persons controlling funding. This is living, evolving science activism in action. What will these talented persons cobble together? And where will new capabilities to synthesize genomes take us? Arguably one of the leading scientists involved in this effort, Dr. George Church, has summarized the future succinctly (4) –
… I don’t know what the baby will grow up into.
(1) R. Cross. 2017. Money Still Missing as the Plan to Synthesize a Human Genome Takes Another Step Forward. Science, 8 May 2017. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/money-still-missing-plan-synthesize-human-genome-takes-another-step-forward
(2) A. Pollack. 2016. Scientists Announce HGP-Write, Project to Synthesize the Human Genome. The New York Times, 2 June 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/03/science/human-genome-project-write-synthetic-dna.html
(3) J. D. Boeke et al. The Genome Project – Write. 2016. Science, 2 June 2016. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2016/06/01/science.aaf6850/tab-pdf
(4) J. Abbasi. 2016. Pioneering Geneticist Explains Ambitious Plan to “Write” the Human genome. Journal of the American Medical Association 316(20):2074-2076. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2577970