May 18, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Assembling a synthetic human genome: Science and the politics of openness

There has recently been some commotion in the field of synthetic biology about a meeting held at Harvard on 10 May 2016 at which scientists discussed the creation of a synthetic human genome. The meeting was a closed, invitation-only meeting. In a field of science that takes pride in its openness and transparency, this created some disquiet. Before thinking through this openness and transparency conundrum, let’s track back a bit and look at the context for this meeting.

From reading to writing the human genome

In the 1990s scientists launched the Human Genome Project (HGP) whose aim it was to read, decode, decipher… the human genome. The human genome was finally read in 2003 after major advances in gene sequencing had been achieved. As soon as the genome was read, scientists began to speculate about whether they would be able not only to read but also to write DNA, and the field of synthetic biology began to flourish. In 2010 Craig Venter, one of the pioneers of the HGP, and his team created the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell.

Now 15 years or so after the decoding of the human genome and after many more scientific and technological advances in genetics and genomics, including synthetic genomics, scientists came together to discuss the possibility of not only synthesising or writing bits of DNA, but the entire human genome. This shift from ‘HGP-read’ to ‘HGP-write’ is what one might call a ‘biggy’…. It would mean digitally and chemically assembling  “[a]ll 6 billion (duplex) bases, wrapped up in 23 pairs of chromosomes that display incredible architectural and functional complexity that we really don’t understand very well just yet”, as Rob Carlson put it in a blog post about the meeting. (For a good explanation of the project, see here)

Closed doors and some media reactions

The discussion about this still rather futuristic endeavour was held behind closed doors, out of the media limelight. This meant that discussions about assembling a synthetic human genome have not yet really spilled over into the mainstream media. However, there have been reactions to the meeting itself and how it was held. The first reaction to the meeting was an essay or open letter by Drew Endy, a synthetic biologist bioengineering professor at Stanford University and Laurie Zoloth, a professor of bioethics at Northwestern University, which appared in an online science and technology magazine called Cosmos (and elsewhere). This essay then triggered, it seems, some media coverage in two American broadsheets, the New York Times (14 May) (article by Andrew Pollack) and the Washington Post (13 May), a number of smaller US newspapers, a few prominent online magazines, such as io9 (13 May), Gizmodo (13 May), Engadget (13 May) and other tech magazines. Two UK tabloids covered the event, namely the Express (16 May) and, more thoroughly and more level-headedly, the Daily Mail (13 May). On 17 May Anjana Ahuja published an article in the Financial Times entitled “The uses and abuses of human genome synthesis” which, like many others, quotes a question posed by Endy and Zoloth about whether it would be ethically acceptable “to sequence and then synthesise Einstein’s genome?”, but adds to this the vision of Craig Venter being “part of an international effort to sequence the genome of that great Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci”.

In the UK the topic was also picked up Andrew Balmer, an expert in synthetic biology and Responsible Research and Innovation, who wrote an insightful blog post about the issue of secrecy in synthetic biology (14 May) (now also published on the Guardian‘s political science blog, 18 May).

The openness and transparency conundrum

These, mainly online, conversations raised serious ethical questions about the dangers of secrecy or at least perceived secrecy. One of the organisers of the meeting, George Church, tried to explain how this meeting became private/closed/secret, while, initially it was, it seems, supposed to have been public. Two points he made are interesting. Church said that the assembled scientists did not want to do ‘science by press release‘ (quoted in a number of articles). He also pointed out that “the meeting was closed to the news media, and people were asked not to tweet because the project organizers, in an attempt to be transparent, had submitted a paper to a scientific journal” (quoted in the NYT). There was therefore an embargo but unfortunately the submitted paper had not been published on time for the meeting and the lifting of the embargo. Other stories about the meeting circulate…Whatever the real story behind this and other remarks, they highlight dilemmas of openness and transparency (impact and responsibility) with which scientists have to grapply increasingly, especially when it comes to big, pioneering and still very speculative advances.

Scientists working at the cutting edge of science and looking over the edge to still relatively futuristic scenarios have a communication problem to which I still haven’t quite found a solution: namely, when to whisper and when to shout – both acts of communication pose ethical challenges. This is the conundrum of ‘raising awareness responsibly‘. This is also the conundrum of openness and transparency. In this particular case, the scientists at the meeting seem to have tried to tread a careful path between whispering and shouting, between hype and caution, secrecy and transparency, but on the way lost their ethical footing.

While I very much agree that questions need to be asked about how this meeting has been handled, I also wonder what would have happened had the meeting been held in the limelight of publicity – but without a peer-reviewed article as a reference point. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that this would have led to hype and exaggeration, including speculations about not ‘just’ creating a synthetic human genome but a whole synthetic human being, possibly even armies of them! As the Express proclaimed in the UK: ‘Scientists are secretly plotting to clone humans within a DECADE.”

Public awareness would certainly have been raised by a public meeting, but might also possibly have led to a rather different public debate. We can speculate about this while waiting for the peer-reviewed paper to be published….

PS, added 18 May: an interesting article has just come out on Stat News (HT @carlzimmer) explaining the scientific background and ambitions behind the synthetic human genome talk…The article ends on a nice metaphor: ““Being able to write a book doesn’t mean the story actually becomes real,” Chan said.”

PS, added 3 June: The paper has come out now and there is quite a bit of news reporting (Guardian, WP, FT, Independent etc.). The paper was published in Science on 2 June and is entitled “The genome project-write” – sort of sub-title: “We need technology and an ethical framework for genome-scale engineering”


Posted in genomicsHyperesponsible innovationsynthetic biologytransparency