Welcome to the future.
Scientists are looking at a way to fabricate human chromosomes, making it possibly to synthetically create a human being, and the possibilities for success are looking fantastic, and may be only a decade away by best estimates.
Clearly, just as it has been with cloning, the prospect of fabricating human chromosomes and artificially creating human beings will be widely lauded and criticized in not only the scientific community, but throughout the human race at large. If humans could be created at will, could they be created with certain types of attributes? Certain skin color? Certain muscle types? An army of soldiers? A cadre of servants? The mere idea is a science fiction novelist’s dream.
Where is the possibility of fabricating human chromosomes being discussed? Last Tuesday, top level scientists met behind closed doors at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Just under 150 scientists met in a large lecture hall, according to reports, to discuss building human chromosomes, and none of them were able to talk to the press or post to Twitter or other social media outlets during the meeting. The construction of synthetic chromosomes wasn’t the only thing on the agenda. The assembled masterminds of science were also reportedly examining ways to improve DNA synthesis across the board. However, one must wonder given the secrecy of the entire affair, what was actually discussed behind closed doors?
One professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, George Church, immediately backpedaled after the meeting, saying that it wasn’t closed due to secrecy of the conversation, but because the organizers of the event were submitting their discussion to a scientific journal. Exactly which scientific journal has yet to be revealed. Dr. Church went on to explain that the basis of the event wasn’t only to discuss the creation of the human chromosome, but of the DNA of many types of animals, microbes, and plants.
When information and invitations were first sent out to the top scientists in their fields regarding the event, it was titled “HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project.” The invitation went on to say that the primary goal of the Harvard event was to “synthesize a complete human genome in a cell within a period of 10 years.” Then, for some reason, the organizers changed the name of the event abruptly to “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.” Clearly, the latter title of the event held far less controversy.
So, is the creation of a complete set of human genomes right around the corner? Well, not exactly, but it is in the future. Currently, successful artificial creation of short strands of DNA have been limited to a count of about 200. Comparatively, the entire human DNA strand is about 12 million times that. What seems like a daunting task, however, is currently being streamlined. Currently, a consortium of international scientists is working on synthesizing yeast genomes. Yeast DNA consists of about 12 million base pairs of genomes, and the consortium is well on its way to artificially completing that complete set by eliminating strands of DNA that don’t seem to do anything. By streamlining the process of artificially creating a complete set of DNA, the scientific group is the front runner in designing a process which could lead to producing a complete set of human genomes within a decade.
So, now the ethical questions come into play. In the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
What do you think? Is the artificial creation of human chromosomes just the next step in biological science, or is it something that should be limited for fear of ethical issues?
[Feature Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]