Space & Innovation

Scientists To Build Synthetic Human Genomes

The ambitious proposal could lead to the creation of a human being without parents.

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In a major biotechnology development, a high-profile group of scientists and policymakers this week announced plans to create entirely synthetic human genomes -- the genetic "blueprints" for human life.

The announcement, published Thursday in the journal Science, officially launches The Human Genome Project-Write (HGP-write), a proposal to synthesize human genomes from scratch. HGP-write will build on the knowledge of the landmark Human Genome Project (officially HGP-read), which effectively mapped and sequenced the human genome for the first time.

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The first steps of the HGP-write initiative, outlined in this week's proposal, is to reduce the costs of engineering large genomes, including the human genome. The proposal also calls for an ethical framework for genome-scale engineering.

The project is expected to be enormously controversial. A fully engineered genome could make it possible to create made-to-order human beings with special genetic enhancements -- and without parents. But according to the scientists behind the proposal, their aim is much more limited and practical.

By creating synthetic human genomes from scratch, scientists hope to spur rapid development of radical new medical applications, such as growing replacement human organs or engineering cancer resistance. The authors say HGP-write will also accelerate research and development for vaccines, materials, energy sources, disease vector control and nutrition.

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This week's official proposal follows an invitation-only meeting held last month at Harvard University. That meeting drew criticism for being too secretive, but the team behind the HGP-write proposal now say they will seek public involvement to consider the project's legal and ethical implications.

The goal is to launch the first phase of the 10-year-project by the end of 2016, with more than $100 million in support from public and private sources. If you'd like to consider throwing in a few bucks, you can review the full proposal at Science.

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