Scientists on Thursday formally announced the start of a 10-year project aimed at vastly improving the ability to chemically manufacture DNA, with one of the goals being to synthetically create an entire human genome.
Plans for the project, which leaked last month, have already set off an ethical debate, because the ability to chemically fabricate the complete set of human chromosomes could theoretically allow the creation of babies without biological parents.
Some critics also objected to the secrecy surrounding a meeting to discuss the project at Harvard Medical School in May. The organizers said they avoided publicity so as to not jeopardize publication of the proposal in a peer reviewed scientific journal. The publication occurred on Thursday by the journal Science.
The authors of the proposal said that the ability to fabricate huge stretches of DNA would allow for numerous scientific and medical advances. It might be possible to make organisms resistant to all viruses, for instance, or make pig organs suitable for transplant into people.
The project, which will be run by a new nonprofit organization called the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology, will seek to raise $100 million this year from various public and private sources. Organizers declined to state the ultimate cost of the project, though it could conceivably exceed $1 billion.
Whether the federal government will support the project is still unknown. Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which is the main funder of medical research in the United States, had a tepid response Thursday.
Dr. Collins said in a statement that while N.I.H. was interested in encouraging advances in DNA synthesis, it “has not considered the time to be right for funding a large-scale production-oriented” project like the one being proposed.
He added that “whole-genome, whole-organism synthesis projects extend far beyond current scientific capabilities, and immediately raise numerous ethical and philosophical red flags.”
The effort is being called Human Genome Project – Write, because it is aimed at writing the DNA of life. The original Human Genome Project, which was completed more than a decade ago, aimed at reading the sequence of the three billion letters that make up the genetic code of humans.
The cost of sequencing DNA has fallen dramatically, so that it is now possible to sequence a person’s complete DNA for about $1,000. As a result, DNA sequencing is now routinely used for medical diagnoses, crop breeding and scientific research.
The organizers of the HGP-Write project hope to do much the same with DNA synthesis, reducing the cost more than 1,000-fold in a decade. Still, even if such progress is made, it might cost several million dollars in 10 years to completely fabricate one human genome.
The authors of the paper in Science say they do not want to create babies but maintain that focusing on a grand challenge like synthesizing an entire human genome would be the best way to galvanize advances in DNA synthesis that could be used for more practical purposes, such as engineering plants, animals and microbes.
“By focusing on building the 3Gb of human DNA, HGP-write would push current conceptual and technical limits by orders of magnitude and deliver important scientific advances,” they write, referring to three gigabases, the three billion letters in the human genome.
Scientists already can change DNA in organisms or add foreign genes, as is done to make medicines like insulin or genetically modified crops. New “genome editing” tools, like one called Crispr, are making it far easier to re-engineer an organism’s DNA blueprint.
But George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of the organizers of the new project, said that if the changes desired are extensive, at some point it becomes easier to synthesize the needed DNA from scratch.
“Editing doesn’t scale very well,” he said. “When you have to make changes to every gene in the genome it may be more efficient to do it in large chunks.”
Besides Dr. Church, the other organizers of the project are Jef Boeke, director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center; Andrew Hessel, a futurist at the software company Autodesk; and Nancy J. Kelley, who works raising money for projects. The paper in Science lists a total of 25 authors, many of them involved in DNA engineering.
Dr. Boeke of N.Y.U. is leading an international project to synthesize the complete genome of yeast, which has 12 million base pairs. It would be the largest genome synthesized to date, though still much smaller than the human genome.
Jason Kelly, chief executive of Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston company that makes fragrances and flavorings in genetically modified yeast, said that even if it were possible to make DNA strands that were millions or billions of base pairs long, industry would not need such capability.
“We really don’t know how to design anything that big today,” he said.
Rather, he said, the emphasis should be on reducing the cost of making DNA strands up to 10,000 base pairs long. Such strands, long enough to encompass a few genes, are what companies like his use now. “There’s a huge appetite for that,” he said. “That’s what everyone wants.”
Two people who criticized the project, and the secrecy surrounding it last month, said Thursday that they were still not satisfied. While the paper in Science talks a lot about the need to consider ethical issues, they said that should have been done before starting the project.
“Before launching into such a momentous project, with such enormous ethical and theological implications, a basic ethical question still needs to be asked — starting with whether and under what circumstances we should make such technologies real,” said a statement issued by Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford, and Laurie Zoloth, a professor of religion at Northwestern University.