(UR) Boston, MA — When it comes to science, discovering something new is perhaps one of the fundamental motivators for research. For the most part, the impact these discoveries have are mostly centered within the scientific community, or tend to become a link in a long chain of discovery. Yet when it comes to the potential to write a human genome, from nothing, the implication is a little broader.
A new project announced last week will see a team of scientists doing exactly that: working to develop a process whereby a complete human genome can be written in a lab. The Human Genome Project-write (HGP-write), nominally linked to the Human Genome Project (HGP) that saw the mapping of the human genome mapped in its entirety in 2004, is a project designed to artificially synthesise the foundational biological building blocks of the human being.
A project that is entirely based on potential, the scientific and medical applicability of this experiment seems almost limitless. Thanks to information generated through the original HGP, scientists are already able to synthesize aspects of genomes, helping us to heal and increasing our understanding of human biology and how disease and other potentially harmful agents interact with us. Science and the power of discovery, however, is not the only issue here.
Despite a project outline published in the journal Science earlier this year, there are several questions that HGP-write have simply not answered. Moreover, the authors of the paper have left certain moral and ethical questions out in their entirety. If this were not enough to cause concern among policy-makers and the general public, that the meetings concerning HGP-write have been conducted behind closed doors — doors paid for heavily by corporate donors, with no press permitted to attend — is causing even more worry.
Working to cure disease and understand the nature of our being is, intrinsically, a noble pursuit. Few would argue this point. Things done for the greater good of humanity, however, might include a more democratic voice — particularly when there are questionable applications for the new science, or new technology.
If the article in Science contained some discussion on the ethics of writing a human genome from scratch, or perhaps even some discussion on the potential ability of this technology to create designer human beings, then concerns might be lessened. Being able to write a human genome moves scientists and biologists a little closer to having the technological capacity of manufacturing a customized human being.
Although this is not specifically the nature of the project as outlined in Science, the HGP-write project makes moving beyond simple genome manipulation and entering into full creation a conceivable possibility. It is here where critics are calling for a deeper, broader discussion concerning the ethics of not only the project, but the concept in general.
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