After being told not to talk to the media or tweet during the event, last week more than 100 scientists, researchers, and lawyers gathered in secret at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The mystery and secrecy surrounding the meeting has led some people to speculate about the possibly nefarious intent of the event during which they were set to discuss a highly controversial subject: creating a synthetic human genome.
As reported by The New York Times, journalists were excluded from the meeting, which has raised suspicions within the media and wider science community about what was actually being discussed. One of the organizers of the event, Dr. George Church, told the NYT that the secrecy was necessary because they were discussing a paper that had only just been submitted to a journal and had not yet been reviewed. “They’re painting a picture which I don’t think represents the project,” Dr. Church said.
But for some, Dr. Church’s response is not adequate enough. It is standard practice for journalists to get access to scientific papers before they’re released, and most of the time this relationship holds up. Things haven’t been helped, either, by the meeting's sudden change of name. Initially, it was titled “HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project,” with the stated aim to “synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.” But by the time the meeting took place, it had been changed to simply “HGP – Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.”
The “HGP” refers to the Human Genome Project, which was set up in 1990 with the goal of sequencing the 3 billion base pairs that make up the DNA found in every human cell, for which the meeting set out as its predecessor. But rather than simply read the human genome, the new project is apparently setting out to write it. The ethics surrounding a project of such magnitude is complex to say the least, which is one of the main reasons that many have taken umbrage with the level of secrecy surrounding the event.
The organizers, however, insist that this is a misrepresentation of what they are actually trying to achieve. Dr. Church has insisted that they are not interested in creating people, just cells, and that what they want to be able to do is move forward with the science to create long strands of synthetic DNA in general, from all sorts of plants and animals and not just humans. That does beg the question of why they changed the naming of the event, and again why it was shrouded in mystery to begin with.
The science of creating synthetic life is still very basic. While scientists have successfully created a bacteria containing lab-made DNA that contained just 1 million base pairs, this is only a fraction of the 2 billion needed for a human. This makes the goal of achieving it within 10 years seem a little bold, and expensive. Whether or not the controversy surrounding the meeting was just a PR mistake, or the soundings of something more sinister, one thing is for certain: it has led to more open debate about the ethics and morals of such a project.