Behind-doors plot to create synthetic DNA

Data from Star Trek - synthetic, but not quite human
Data from Star Trek - synthetic, but not quite human

One hundred and fifty of the world's top scientists meet behind closed doors, emerging to announce they're going to try and create a synthetic human being. Or at least its DNA.

It sounds like the plot to a straight-to-video sci-fi thriller, but it's true.

The meeting, held at Harvard Medical School in Boston last month, was behind doors not because they're evil, necessarily. The plan, now published in journal Science, was simply under embargo.

AUT chemistry professor Allan Blackman told Paul Henry this morning it wasn't a good look, but a necessary one.

"There's obviously the feeling there's something to hide or something to be worried about, and really there's not."

Researchers have already managed to create simple DNA sequences for viruses and bacteria, reports Science, and next year a group hopes to have created a fully synthetic form of yeast.

That project requires the construction of 10 million base pairs of biological compounds, while the human genome has 3 billion.

"The order in which they come determines what we are -- absolutely everything," says Prof Blackman.

Called the Human Genome Project-Write (HGP-Write), the proposal comes 12 years after the completion of the original Human Genome Project, which sequenced human DNA.

"It was biology's first genome-scale project, and at the time was considered controversial by some. Now it is recognised as one of the great feats of exploration, one that has revolutionised science and medicine," the proposal reads.

The researchers want $144 million to launch the project, and expect the total cost would "likely be less" than the $4 billion the original project cost.

Even if they're unsuccessful in building a synthetic human genome, it's expected the effort should reduce the cost of genetic engineering and testing by 1000-fold.

In 2006 it cost $20 million to create a draft-quality human genome sequence. It's now about $2000 and falling rapidly.

"HGP-Write could also facilitate biological engineering of many organisms, accelerating research and development across a broad spectrum of life sciences and supporting basic research and development of new bio-based therapies, vaccines, materials, energy sources, disease vector control, and nutrition," the proposal claims.

But don't go expecting designer babies just yet.

"There's still so much we don't know about the human genome… we don't necessarily know what every little bit of DNA does," says Prof Blackman. "There's a hell of a lot of water that's got to flow under the bridge until we get to that stage."

The project is also bound to raise ethical concerns, but Prof Blackman says they will be quickly forgotten if it achieves its goal.

"The same objections were raised way back in 1978 when the first test-tube baby was born, and look at what IVF has done for the planet -- it has made so many people around the world [happy], it's changed their lives."

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