An international group of about 150 scientists met in May behind closed doors to discuss an unofficial follow-up to the Human Genome Project. This time, however, instead of mapping all the genes in human DNA, the scientists want to create one from scratch.
In practical terms, such an undertaking will require scientists to harness specific chemicals to create the 3 billion base pairs that sit inside human DNA. To understand just how hard this task will be to accomplish, consider the synthetic Mycoplasma genitalium bacterium created by Craig Venter’s team: it involved creating only 437 genes, with about 500,000 base pairs. Meanwhile, humans have around 19,000 genes in their genome.
The project, which is still in the idea phase, has been widely criticized for its lack of transparency and for not hosting a more rigorous ethical debate. While the stated goal of the project is to lower the cost of genetic testing and engineering, and offer advances in fighting diseases such as cancer, scientists are worried this technology could open the floodgates to engineered humans, or “designer babies.”
“It’s unclear if they understand the first step, which has to be the beginning of the project, is to ask: is this a good idea?” said Laurie Zoloth, professor of bioethics and religion at Northwestern University.
Some scientists who oppose the project chose not to attend the closed meeting, and the head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, responded negatively to the plan. Ethicists and scientists have speculated that it might be possible, through cloning, to
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