Scientists Discuss Synthetic Human Genomes in Secret, Scientists-Only Meeting

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Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A tip for scientists working at the cutting edge of human genetics research: A reliable way to draw unwanted public attention to your meeting about the future of your field is to make a big deal about that meeting being a secret one.

Last week, about 150 scientists met at Harvard to discuss what they believe to be the next phase of studying the human genome. If the Human Genome Project focused on reading the genome — could geneticists one day write it? The idea of creating genetic material from scratch in a lab, resulting in chemically manufactured human DNA, is “becoming plausible at an accelerating rate,” as scientists Drew Endy and Laurie Zoloth recently wrote about the closed-door meeting — and this is exactly why, they argue, holding a private meeting to discuss that plausibility is so inappropriate. As Andrew Pollack phrased it in the New York Times, “The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.”

This is a subject, in other words, that is already ethically murky — to put it mildly — and, as such, would already draw up panicky images of mad scientists mucking around with lab-created human life. (Even if we are, in reality, not exactly near that science fiction–esque future. “Such a synthetic genome could then be tested in a laboratory by replacing the existing genome within a human cell,” Endy and Zoloth clarify. “All this would still be far removed from making a synthetic human.”) Holding a secretive, scientists-only meeting about this type of work in human genetics does not bode well for the future consideration of ethics in this field, write Endy and Zoloth; it also does not help matters of public perception.

And, anyway, few things stay secret for long. When Endy — an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford — heard of the meeting, he wrote on Twitter about his concerns, including a screenshot of the invite:

Endy and Zoloth, who studies bioethics at Northwestern University, together penned the essay elaborating on those concerns:

In a world where human reproduction has already become a competitive marketplace, with eggs, sperm and embryos carrying a price, it is easy to make up far stranger uses of human genome synthesis capacities. Would it be OK, for example, to sequence and then synthesise Einstein’s genome? If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them? Taking a step back, just because something becomes possible, how should we approach determining if it is ethical to pursue?

But they also note that there are some real scientific benefits to the idea of synthesizing the human genome, and it would be best if researchers did not inadvertently stamp on the potential by inadequately accounting for public fears:

For example, a project that made polio virus from scratch in 2002 generated such fear that public funding for improving DNA synthesis tools was cancelled, unwittingly harming research across diverse and unrelated fields while policy makers struggled to imagine how such tools could ever be controlled.

In the initial planning of this meeting, as co-organizer George Church told the Washington Post, journalists were to have been invited, and it would’ve been livestreamed online, too. It was supposed to have been timed with the publication of a big-deal paper on the subject, but when that paper was delayed, the meeting organizers decided to scale back the meeting, and make it closed to the public and the media, in part to avoid exactly the kind of reporting it ended up generating, anyway.

Let’s leave Endy and Zoloth with the last words here. “The creation of new human life is one of the last human-associated processes that has not yet been industrialised or fully commodified. It remains an act of faith, joy, and hope,” they write to close their essay. “Discussions to synthesise, for the first time, a human genome should not occur in closed rooms.”