George Church, Autodesk embark on project to synthesize the human genome

Human genome
("Human genome printed" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by JohnJobby)

George Church and more than 20 other scientists have formally unveiled their project to synthesize the human genome. The initiative, details of which leaked out last month following a secret meeting, is being overseen by a nonprofit that this year is seeking to raise the first $100 million of a budget that is tipped to swell to $1 billion.

Church and his collaborators are presenting the project, dubbed Human Genome Project-Write, as a way to advance the synthesis of long strands of DNA. Today, a project to synthesize the 12 million base pairs that make up the yeast genome is at the forefront of ambition and capabilities in the field. HGP-Write would entail synthesizing the 3 billion base pairs that make up the human genome.

By synthesizing a genome that is 250 times longer than yeast, the HGP-Write team think they can drive down the cost of constructing such lengthy sequences and open the door to an array of health advances. In a publication in the journal Science, the organizers listed the growth of transplantable organs, engineering of cancer resistance into cell lines and lowering of the cost of drug development through the use of human cells and organoids as possible outcomes of the project.

Notably, the creation of babies that lack biological parents is absent from the list of objectives. The potential for the project to lead to the creation of babies with synthesized genomes has dominated the ethical debate about HGP-Write since news of the initiative’s existence leaked out last month. Vocal critics of the project, such as Stanford bioengineer Drew Endy, have reiterated their concerns in the days since HGP-Write’s official unveiling. And NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins also highlighted the “numerous ethical and philosophical red flags” in a statement to The New York Times.

NIH, as a major funder of biomedical research, could potentially stymie the financing of HGP-Write if it decides against backing the project. The Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology, the nonprofit set up to oversee the initiative, is looking to public and private sources for money. So far, the list of publicly disclosed financial backers is short.

The project has attracted the financial and technical support of Autodesk, a 3-D design software firm best known for the tools it has created to help architects, engineers and people working in other sectors outside of life sciences. With HGP-Write falling well outside of Autodesk’s traditional areas of focus, the company put out a blog post to explain why it is committing its time and $250,000 to the project.

“Living things are very complex. It’s not just big data, it’s insanely big data. Simply to organize the biological information takes state of the art computing. Understanding and synthesizing a genome is even harder,” Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski wrote in a post on Medium. “Software tools are going to be essential, even for the design of the simplest cell.”

- read the Science post
- here’s the NYT’s take
- check out Autodesk’s post

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