A select group of researchers from top American universities gathered last month in an invitation-only meeting at Harvard to discuss the need of technology and an ethical framework for genome-scale engineering. The conclusions are now presented in a paper published in the journal Science, where they propose to start the Human Genome Project–Write (HGP-write). In this call to action, Jef Boeke and his collaborators suggest to invest $100 million in the next 10 years to develop the technology needed to synthesize whole genomes.
The Human Genome Project (“HGP-read”), completed more than ten years ago, contributed enormously to the optimization of DNA sequencing costs, quality and speed. In the same manner, the authors argue, the HGP-Write would transform large-scale synthesis and editing of genomes. At the beginning, the original HGP raised ethical and social concerns, but time proved it was a very beneficial enterprise for humanity. To avoid the disconnection between scientists and society on this occasion, the authors demand a public debate from the start. An open dialogue about the project will allow to identify the objectives and priorities, the needs of different parts of the world, and to harmonize regulations across countries.
Synthesis of human, plant and viral genomes
Whole-genome engineering of human cells will allow to obtain therapeutic cell lines resistant to cancer or immune to viruses. The technology will also be applied other organisms, like crop plants or infectious agents. Efforts will be also directed to advance the understanding of gene regulation, genetic diseases, and evolutionary processes.
The authors plan to launch the HGP-write project in the following months, with a starting contribution of $100 million by public and private sources. The project would be implemented through one or more centers that would coordinate the work of interdisciplinary research teams.