Are we insidiously moving towards the artificial creation of a human? George Church, whose recurring media coups - announcing the resurrection of mammoths for example - published an article (co-authored by 24 other American researchers) in the journal Science announcing the mobilization to synthesize verbatimthe 6 billion nucleotides of the human genome. The project will be carried out by a non-commercial organization, the Centre of Excellence for Biological Engineering, which will raise $100 million this year from both private and public sources. So you have to convince people that it can be used for something... But what is it for?
Dn his book published in 2012 entitled " Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves " (How synthetic biology will reinvent nature and ourselves), the biologist George Church describes the end point of genetic engineering as the production of humans with custom-made genomes that have become resistant to all viruses including AIDS or herpes .
The dream is attractive and animates the Genome-Project Writewhich comes twenty-five years after the international mobilization for the sequencing of the human genome. After reading, let's move on to writing!
After two confidential meetings held in New York (at the Langone Medical Center) on October 31, 2015, and then at Harvard on May 10, 2015, the 25 co-sponsor-researchers co-authored a paper entitled "The Role of the Researchers in the Development of the New York City Health Care System". The genome writing project in the review Science of June 2, 2016. Among them, Rob Carlson who invented the "synthetic biology tool simplification" curve which, like Moore's law, predicts an exponential decrease in costs. The prospector Andrew Hesselmember of the Bio/Nano research group from Autodesk, is also among the signatories, as well as Jef Boeke who heads the Institute of Genetic Systems at the Langone Medical Center in New York and is leading the project to synthesize the yeast genome (200 times smaller than the human genome), which is expected to be completed in 2017.
Assuring that too few people are interested in synthetic biology and its incredible potential, Hessel calls for a kind of awakening, which the challenge of "writing" a synthetic human genome could trigger. A technical challenge, he said, whose objective would be to show that this genome can be functional if injected into a culture cell. "What I certainly don't want to propose is to grow a baby from a synthetic genome. Before we can fly, we have to be able to walk." he said.
This plan (HGP-writing) to synthesize the human genome has met with mixed reactions. Some acknowledge that much can be learned because, for the moment, only small genomes and bacterial portions have been made from scratch. But other researchers see this initiative as an unnecessary centralization of work that is already in place in companies working to lower the price of DNA chain synthesis. In addition, some of the promoters of human genome writing have financial interests, notably at Gen9 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Certainly, there are important issues concerning the intellectual property of the results. Boeke indicates that it would prefer that there be no intellectual property restrictions on HGP-writing products, as in the case of its synthetic yeast genome project. « We're not looking to make an army of clones or start a new era of eugenics...,a indicated the researcher. «
"The project could encourage broad access to intellectual property through patent pooling, the authors claim. Cost reduction is possible, as shown by the 1000 $ grant program as well as the sharing of CRISPR tools between more than 80 laboratories through addgene.org".
For the authors, who insist from the outset on the desire to be part of a "responsible innovation" approach, the project can respond to a certain number of challenges for human health. One thinks of gene therapy with therapeutic or cancer-resistant cell lines or the creation of transplantable human organs.
Project rationale remains unclear
The proposal also receives strong criticism. Drew Endy, who is very involved in the IGEM international competition (in Boston) devoted to synthetic biology, considers that the approach should have been subject to an independent ethical review. "Do we want to function in a world where people are able to organize themselves to make human genomes? Do we need to pause and reflect on this question before we embark on the project? »questions Drew Endy in The WashingtonPost. " They talk about implementing this thing that is the genome and that defines humanity. This is a shameless attempt to pre-empt prior ethical advice. »
On May 13, following the "secret" meeting at Harvard, the Center for Genetics and Societyan NGO that campaigns for ethical debates on new biotechnologies, denounced "a meeting that resembles a desire to privatize the discussion on genetic heritage modification.
Medical geneticist Francis Collins said in a statement that the Federal Institute of Health (NIH) he heads is interested in encouraging advances in DNA synthesis, but does not consider that the time has come to fund large-scale production. He has added than " projects to synthesize whole organisms for the entire genome go far beyond current scientific capacities and immediately raise many ethical and philosophical red flags."
In order to ensure public participation and transparency, the Human Genome Project plans to encourage public debate with the support of the Woodrow Wilson Centre. A case to follow .