Ethics of Synthesizing the Human Genome: Should it happen?

Sebastian Wellford
Jun 15, 2016 · 7 min read

In May, a group of scientists met secretly at Harvard University to plan HGP-write, a project designed to create an entire functioning human genome out of chemicals. This is a discussion of the ethical ramifications of such a project. For a description on the technology behind this initiative, see here.

The leaders of HGP-write have published this article in Science to outline their proposed project goals. All parties involved are acutely aware that this plan will push the boundaries of science and therefore push the boundaries of ethics. The proposal states that a percentage of funds raised for the project will go directly toward responsible innovation and consideration of ethical, legal, and social implications. The scientists pushing for HGP-write state that they will carefully plan all experiments ahead of time to ensure that they are being conducted ethically. Due consideration will also be given to ensure that the benefits of the research serve all of mankind. But skeptics of the project cite ethical and legal barriers to many aspects of HGP-write. This has led to a debate within the scientific community over the validity of the project. Below, I will examine many of the pros, cons, and lingering questions involving the ethics of such an undertaking.

Potential Benefits of HGP-write

  • Greater ability to synthesize DNA and make genomes up to 100 billion base pairs long.
  • Reduction in the cost of gene synthesis. Estimates suggest that this project will decrease the cost of synthesis 1000-fold.
  • Better understanding of gene function, espically in non-coding regions.

Potential applications include:

  • Growing transplantable human organs.
  • Engineering immunity to viruses in cell lines via genome-wide recoding.
  • Engineering cancer resistance into new therapeutic cell lines.
  • Accelerating high-productivity, cost-efficient vaccine and pharmaceutical development using human cells and organoids.
  • Facilitating the biological engineering of many organisms.
  • And supporting basic R&D of new bio-based therapies, vaccines, materials, energy sources, disease vector control, and nutrition.

Criticism

  • Some scientists believe that synthesizing an entire human genome is unnecessary or inefficient. With CRISPR/Cas-9 technology and other advancements, it is easier to simply edit existing genomes for most applications. Supporters of HGP-write say that genome synthesis may be a better way to create genomes where multiple edits are needed across multiple chromosomes. However, for most gene editing applications, genome synthesis is probably inefficient (one reason labs may pursue synthetic genomes — a synthetic genome can be owned and patented, while an edited genome cannot be).
  • Some scientists dislike that the initial meeting at Harvard was done in secrecy. The authors of the project claim that they will be open to public discourse, and there were good reasons for private discussions at first, but it is vitally important that decisions about this project are made transparently and openly.
  • There are still numerous unanswered ethical, social, and legal implications to be considered. Effective discourse on these must include experts from a variety of fields outside of pure science, and there has not yet been enough time to engage these leaders.

Ethical Questions

It is important to note here that the project only intends to create human cell lines with synthetic genomes, not entire living organisms. But since the creation of organisms may be possible as a consequence of this technology, it is essential to discuss issues pertaining to them at this time.

  • Can scientists create a genome that is resistant to all pathogens? If so, would this create an arms race to engineer new diseases that would conquer it for the purposes of biological warfare?
  • If we can create healthier humans through genome synthesis, what is to prevent someone from creating an unhealthy human? An ultra-warrior human? Genome synthesis could lead to dangerous microbes that we have never seen. This may seem like science fiction, but the point is that good technologies, when put in the wrong hands, can cause destruction.
  • Human reproduction has already become a competitive marketplace, with eggs, sperm, and embryos carrying a price. Is it ok to commercialize human genomes in a similar manner?
  • Who would have the authority to determine what can and cannot be eithically made? Would it be governments? Panels of scientists? Investors? Should these projects be tightly controlled, or opened up to the public for innovation?
  • How should we tackle diversity within an ecosystem? If engineering the genomes for entire species becomes commonplace, how do we ensure that this newer lack of diversity doesn’t harm us or the environment?
  • Should we “play God”? We have been successfully editing the genomes of organisms for years, but should we draw the line at creating entire human genomes? Scientists have been “playing God” for a very long time, and in a world where He has shown little initiative to cure diseases, it may be appropriate to take this into our own hands.
  • If a human with a synthetic genome is created, who would “own” it? Would the researchers be its “parents”? It would be a human with the same emotions, feelings, and thoughts as a normal person. Should we ever even allow such a human to be created? Should we just limit synthetic genomes to cell lines for testing and not whole organisms?

Legal Implications

Synthesizing entire genomes for humans will challenge current patent law, regulations, and the very ideas of ownership and human nature.

  • If a laboratory creates a synthetic genome, it can own and patent it, unlike when an existing genome is edited. Is this an advisable practice? Would a laboratory own an organism created from this synthetic genome? Should patents be used at all in this field? The leaders of HGP-write stress that they will use patent pooling to ensure that multiple lab groups have access to the patents to further innovation.
  • Who should regulate synthetic genome creation, and what would those regulations be? Should it be national and international governments? Should scientific organizations reach a consensus on what they believe to be legal uses of these new technologies?
  • Would it be ok to synthesize Einstein’s genome? If so, who gets to make them, and how many copies should there be? Conversely, is it ok to synthesize Hitler’s genome? Who makes these decisions?
  • If public funding is used for any of these projects, should the data, discoveries, and patents be open to the public? If private funding is used, should there be regulations on it?
  • Should any new biosafety rules be created specifically for this project?
  • What is the best way to formulate policy that involves philosophers, ethicists, lawyers, scientists, and economists?

Societal Impact

Creation of a synthetic human genome could be a seminal moment in human history that would fundamentally alter the way humans behave.

  • Creation of a synthetic human genome will challenge the beliefs of many groups of people. The concepts of a human soul, free will, and the perception of humanity’s role in the universe will be challenged. A human with a synthetic genome would be just like any other human, and this will cause people to change their belief that humans have to be created by two parents or created by a god.
  • How can we ensure that this new technology will benefit humanity effectively? We must be willing to design experiments that will help third-world and developing nations, as well as experiements that advance the well-being of all individuals.
  • How do we take local and regional cultures into account? People from different areas of the world will view these experiments very differently from how scientists view them. It will be important to effectively communicate to them the purpose and technology behind the projects while keeping in mind how they may affect traditionally held values.
  • Should the discoveries be openly shared to the world? How will scientists collaborate with each other and with the public?
  • What will this mean for human rights? Would a human with a superior synthetic genome be endowed with more fundamental rights? Fewer? The same? How will the notions of individual rights change?
  • How should theologians be involed with the project? Should religious sensibilities be taken into account? Should scientists be unafraid to state that many preconceived relgious notions may be disproven?

The issues listed above only begin to scratch the surface of the debates that could stem from this new synthetic genome techonology. I’m sure that I could not cover every concern, and it is important that everyone in the public contributes to this dialogue. For guidance, we should look to past advancements that have challenged our notion of ethics, from the atomic bomb to stem cell research.

Many of these questions involve technology that is far-fetched or not attainable any time soon. It may prove to be impossible or useless to synthesize genomes this large. But it is important to ask these questions sooner rather than later. I personally support proceeding with the project, but it is important to do so conscientiously and carefully.

“If we don’t play God, who will?” — James Watson

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that it gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” — Isaac Asimov

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Sebastian Wellford

Written by

Atoms and cells studying themselves. Virginia Tech Biochemistry Class of 2018. @WellfordBiology on Twitter.

Cell Your Soul

Discussion of Medicine, Disease, Biology, and Technology

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