Over 130 scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and government officials from five continents gathered at Harvard this week for an “exploratory” meeting to discuss the topic of creating genomes from scratch — including, but not limited to, those of humans, said George Church, Harvard geneticist and co-organizer of the meeting.
The meeting was closed to the press, which drew the ire of prominent academics.
Synthesizing genomes involves building them from the ground up — chemically combining molecules to create DNA. Similar work by Craig Venter in 2010 created what was hailed as the first synthetic cell, a bacterium with a comparatively small genome.
The meeting was held Tuesday “to discuss the concept of an international project focused on large genome synthesis as the next chapter in our understanding of the blueprint of life,” according to a consensus statement from the organizers provided by Church.
In recent months, Church has been vocal in saying that the much-hyped genome-editing technology called CRISPR, which is only a few years old and which he helped develop, would soon be obsolete. Instead of changing existing genomes through CRISPR, Church has said, scientists could build exactly the genomes they want from scratch, by stringing together off-the-shelf DNA letters.
The topic is a heavy one, touching on fundamental philosophical questions of meaning and being. If we can build a synthetic genome — and eventually, a creature — from the ground up, then what does it mean to be human?
“This idea is an enormous step for the human species, and it shouldn’t be discussed only behind closed doors,” said Laurie Zoloth, a professor of religious studies, bioethics, and medical humanities at Northwestern University.
In response, she co-authored an article with Drew Endy, a bioengineering professor at Stanford University, calling for broader conversations around the research.
Church said that the meeting was originally going to be “an open meeting with lots of journalists engaged.” It was supposed to be accompanied by a peer-reviewed article on the topic. But, he said, the journal (which Church declined to identify) wanted the paper to include more information about the ethical, social, and legal components of synthesizing genomes — things that were discussed at the meeting.
So Church and the other organizers were in a bind — should they keep the meeting open to the public and break the embargo, or close the meeting so as not to break the embargo of the scientific journal.
“This is a major journal,” Church said. “So we can’t push them around.”
They chose to respect the embargo.
“I’m not sure that was the best idea,” Church said Thursday night.
Church said that when the article is published — “it could be any day now” — a video of the entire meeting will be available to the public.
But a different narrative appeared during the week on social media. Endy posted a tweet that included a screenshot appearing to be a message from the meeting organizers. It said, in part, “We intentionally did not invite the media, because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted as the discussions evolve.”
Endy could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
Endy and Zoloth’s article claims that the meeting was convened to discuss how “to synthesise a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”
Church said that he emailed Endy, explaining that the meeting was made private because of the embargo situation, and that it was not solely about the human genome. Church said that the organizers “sent out a fresh set of invitations later” with updated wording.
Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, based in Berkeley, Calif., said that the “semi-secret” nature of the meeting runs counter to the principles established in December at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing. That group, which included scientists, ethicists, patient advocates, regulators, and others, decided that clinical work on making changes to human genomes that could be inherited should not proceed until there is “broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed alteration.”
Church said that the project is at a much earlier stage. “This is purely a thought experiment,” he said. “It may not be as big news as it sounds.”