A New Human Genome Project: A No Brainer?

The Huffington Post published an article today by Andrew Hessel calling for “Another Human Genome Project” to promote “countless new biotech applications.” “To me,” Hessel writes, “it seems a no-brainer when it comes to big ideas in the genetic space.”

In our ongoing coverage leading up to the March 29 conference Unmasking The Bay Area Bio-lab and Synthetic Biology: Health, Justice, and Communities at Risk, we present the HuffPo article, followed by a response that Synbiowatch solicited from one of the leading critics of biotechnology and synthetic biology, Jaydee Hanson of the International Center for Technology Assessment.

Hanson counters the call for a new human genome project, making the point that, “What is needed now is not a Facebook generation project to remake the human genome, but rather a project to do what the computer engineers calling themselves biologists have not been able to do, assess the risks of their creations.”

– Synbiowatch

Time for Another Human Genome Project?

Andrew Hessel, cross-posted from The Huffington Post

The scientific charge to read a human genome started gaining traction 25 years ago. Now it may be time to think about writing one.

Conceived in the mid-1980s, launched in 1990, and completed to first draft in 2000, the Human Genome Project (HGP) was one of the largest international science collaborations in modern history. Costing approximately $3 billion, it was also one of the most expensive. The HGP was visionary, initiated even before the first bacterial genome (much smaller) had been sequenced. It transformed biology into a digital information science, yielding ongoing returns that include new insights into the molecular basis of life, cancer, and evolution, and also practical applications, like rapid genetic tests for important diseases.

That was then, this is now. Today, in 2012, reading a human genome is no big deal. It takes about a day and is approaching $1,000 in price. BGI, the Chinese DNA sequencing powerhouse in Shenzen, is out to sequence 1 million human genomes, a million animal and plant genomes, plus a million bacterial genomes for good measure. The forefront of genetics has moved on to new frontiers. One frontier is informational, massive data crunching to simply make sense of all this genetic information. The other frontier is about writing DNA code — genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering isn’t what most people imagine it to be. It still conjures up the idea of white-coated scientists surrounded by test tubes and beakers bubbling away with colorful potions. In fact, there’s no lab necessary, any old coffee shop will do. This is because genetic engineering’s gone digital, all done with computer software, using programs that function much like word processors. Mix and match genetic code, spell and error check, shuffle bits around — it’s drag and drop easy. When it looks good, just hit send. Companies like DNA 2.0 or IDT transform the virtual DNA into the real stuff using DNA printers called synthesizers.

It’s called synthetic biology. Fast, easy, and cheap, synthetic biology is genetic engineering for the Facebook generation. Projects that once took months now take minutes; that once cost millions, a few thousand. Personal genomics following the same Moore’s Law cost curve as personal computing. It’s no surprise that the field’s pioneers are the under-25 set, that the number of people associating themselves with synthetic biology has grown astronomically, and the potential for disruptive innovation is waking up everyone from Big Pharma to DARPA to Bill Gates, who said if he were a teenager today, he’d be hacking biology, not computers.

Activity in synthetic biology is growing across the board, with groups large and small applying the technology to specific challenges, a biofuel here, a drug there, a new diagnostic test, and so forth. With each drop in the price of DNA synthesis, or improvement in making DNA assemblies, the more projects that boot up, the more companies are launched, and the more investor money is raised. Despite this activity, outside of the scientific community, few have heard of synthetic biology, and even fewer appreciate just how powerful the technology is.

It’s about time this changed. To this end, perhaps it’s time to consider a new grand challenge for genetics, one that captures the public interest. I can think of none grander than an international effort to write a human genome.

I want to be absolutely clear that I’m talking only about the task of writing a complete 3 billion basepair human genome, correctly organized into 23 chromosomes, and packaged into a nucleus. A technical challenge, validated by showing the synthetic genome is functional if microinjected into a cultured cell. What I’m definitely not suggesting is growing a baby from a synthetic genome. Before we can fly, we need to be able to walk.

Here’s why I believe launching an effort to write a human genome makes sense. (Think of it as HGP 2.0.)

  • It’s actually commonplace to write human genomes. Every time one of our cells divide, the cell’s genome must be copied. The cellular machinery for perfectly duplicating DNA and packaging it into chromosomes may be complex and currently beyond our complete understanding, but it exists. Nothing needs to be invented, per se, just harnessed and controlled.
  • Synthetic genomes have already been made. Genetic scientist Craig Venter successfully wrote and “booted” a synthetic bacterial genome in 2010. A joint U.S.-China project is now underway to write and boot a synthetic yeast genome, about 10x larger and a billion years more evolved.
  • It’s affordable today and rapidly becoming more so. DNA synthesis costs fallen by about half per year on average. Today they about $0.20 cents per DNA base, or about $600 million undiscounted to synthesize a human genome. Granted, that’s a lot of money. But in the next 18 months, newer synthesis technology is expected to accelerate the price drop. Next-generation DNA printers should reduce prices by a factor of 1000, or roughly $600,000. Should this reduction stay on pace, the cost of synthesizing a human genome could fall below $1,000 as early as 2020.
  • DARPA’s Living Foundries synthetic biology effort is already funding breakthrough new tools and technologies for genomic engineering, and making them available to all scientists.
  • Human genome-scale engineering would allow for more rapid advancement in cancer and stem cell therapies.
  • The HGP was one of the few life science endeavors that have captured the public consciousness, resulting in massive media coverage that continues to this day. An effort to write a human genome would build on this foundation.
  • Like the first HGP, while controversial, there are obvious benefits, for example, lowering the cost of developing new drugs or producing new fuels.

Overall, a coordinated effort to write a Human Genome would likely be completed in less than a decade, cost significantly less than the first HGP, and result in countless new biotech applications. To me, it seems a no-brainer when it comes to big ideas in the genetic space. What is surprising to me is that the genomics community hasn’t yet advanced such a project. Eventually, someone has to. If there’s a question mark hanging over this at all, it’s whether the U.S. or China will lead the scientific charge.

“We Need to Assess the Risks of These Creations”

Jaydee Hanson, Policy Director for the International Center for Technology Assessment, responds to the Huffington Post

Andrew Hessel wants a new human genome project that will write or re-write the human genome from a computer.  His remarks, coming out the same day as the release of the Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, make clear that he just does not get it.  The first Human Genome project set aside 3% of the project’s cost to review the ethical, legal, and socio-economic effects of the human genome project.  What is needed now is not a Facebook-generation project to remake the human genome, but rather a project to do what the computer engineers calling themselves biologists have not been able to do, assess the risks of their creations.

I have been asked if I think these scientists are like Dr. Frankenstein. I always answer, “No, Dr. Frankenstein had the good sense not to make a mate for his creature, these folks want their creations to be able to mate.”

The ability of the synthetic biologists’ creations to get out of control outside the lab (or in the lab, harming workers) needs to be carefully evaluated. We have too many cases of pharmaceutical drugs harming the people they were supposed to help. Kudzu was introduced by agricultural scientists to control erosion, and throughout the South it is has turned into a Frankenstein weed that covers everything.  So far, the costs of evaluating the ecological, economic, social, or ethical effects of any kind of genetic engineering have not fallen according to Moore’s law.

If we need any new government funding (and that is what the argument here is about): it should be for research on the ecological, ethical, social, and economic costs of these new technologies.  For too long, government has poured funding into these new technologies without giving any real funds for the assessment of the risks of these technologies. They both must go hand in hand, otherwise the projects become well-funded hype, not good science.

I recently heard another synthetic biologist argue that her work on a bacteria would cure cancer, indeed cure all disease, solve the fuel crisis, and end hunger.  These are of course worthy goals, but I for one don’t believe that they will be reached by reengineering the human genome or cyanobacteria.  These problems need the work of social scientists and peace makers more than computer scientists turned synthetic biologists.


Jaydee Hanson, Policy Director for the International Center for Technology Assessment since 2004, advocates for international and US policies that address the ecological and ethical effects of new technologies such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and human genetic engineering.  He is a fellow at the Institute on Biology and the Human Future and serves on the biotechnology advisory committee for the World Council of Churches.