DNA is essentially a stream of information composed of chunks of chemicals. It isn’t unreasonable to think that, someday, humans will be able to create synthetic DNA, composed of hand-built genes – and a team of scientists have just publicly announced that this is exactly what they plan to do.
In just the last couple of years, researchers have designed synthetic bacteria with laboratory-manufactured genes, and they are well on their way to doing the same with yeast, which is a far more complex beast to replicate.
Synthetic human DNA is more complex still – magnitudes more so – but 200 of the world’s leading researchers on the subject have told reporters that they are kick-starting an initiative to investigate the viability of such a monumental task.
Described as a sequel to the famous Human Genome Project (HGP), which spent 13 years mapping the entire human genome, they claim that this is the next logical step. The new project, entitled Genome Project-write (GP-write), will require $100 million in funding.
They first published a paper in the journal Science on the subject back in 2016, around the time they had an initial and unusually secret meeting about it. An upcoming gathering in New York City that will feature intense discussions over how to proceed is already raising tensions within and outside of the scientific community.
Much in the way the gene-editing tool CRISPR causes controversy, with some suggesting that designer babies will become inevitable as a consequence, synthetic human DNA is putting the idea of designed humans in people’s minds.
“We have a four- to five-year period where there can be plenty of time for debate about the wisdom of that,” Jef Boeke, a biochemist from NYU Langone Medical Center and one of GP-write’s coordinators, told CNBC News. “Whenever it's human, everyone has an opinion and wants their voice to be heard. We want to hear what people have to say.”
If the project is successful, it will send shockwaves through the scientific community. Gio.tto/Shutterstock
The group plan to synthesize the genomes of simpler organisms first. Some of the group are actually involved in the aforementioned synthetic yeast genome study, so it’s safe to say they’re progressing incredibly rapidly towards their ultimate goal in a fairly short space of time.
The team are so confident of their scientific know-how that they boldly claim synthetic human DNA is just five years away from being a reality.
Not only that, but they are hoping it’ll be quite cheap to manufacture. Right now, it costs about $0.1 to synthesize a single base pair (a key structural element of DNA). We have 3 billion of these, which means synthesizing all of them costs $300 million. The team want to cut this down to $300,000.
Watch this space!