he research group behind an effort to synthesize a human genome this week released more information about its plans, including a draft white paper with a timeline of how the research might go.
It’s the latest step in the ambitious project, originally named “Human Genome Project-Write,” which came to light after a May meeting to discuss the building of large genomes from off-the-shelf parts.
Within a year, the international group will select one small-scale research project to kick off the effort, and start a “major effort to engage with representative members of the public,” according to the draft road map. By year five, it will “shift into high gear” and start tackling the creation of entire genomes — maybe human or maybe not, depending on feedback.
The project was also rebranded from the “Human Genome Project-Write,” which implied an emphasis on creating human genomes from scratch, to the “Genome Project-Write,” which clarifies that participants will look at synthesizing all sorts of large genomes, not just human ones. This was the intention of the project from the beginning, said attorney and white paper coauthor Nancy Kelley, but it got lost in the media conversation.
Kelley said that the white paper is very much a work in progress — “a living document.” She said that in the coming weeks, everyone who attended the May meeting will be invited to provide feedback and potentially sign on as coauthors.
But one of those attendees said the project could be doing more to be transparent. Alina Chan, a Harvard postdoc who presented research at the meeting, said she was initially asked if she wanted to contribute to the white paper, and she said yes — but she never was invited to. Chan didn’t know the draft had been posted online until contacted by STAT Friday morning.
“The whole thing, in terms of organization, could be better,” Chan said, pointing out that the online paper isn’t labeled as a draft.
Regardless, scientists around the world have expressed interest in the project — Kelley has heard from more than 60 researchers in over 13 countries. Their names are not listed on the website but will be in the future, Kelley said.
The group has also been posting more information online that sheds light on synthetic biology research that may be a part of this new genome project. Over the summer, videos from the May meeting were added on YouTube, and this week, a summary of the May meeting was posted, including information on possible next steps for research.
Exactly which genomes are going to be built is still to be determined. For now, the group will focus on a pilot project — a smaller-scale undertaking that could provide scientific insight useful to whole-genome synthesis and also advance technology to the point that building an entire genome from scratch is feasible.
Some possible pilot projects, detailed in the white paper and also discussed at the May meeting, include building “ultrasafe” human cell lines that are resistant to threats like radiation, cancer, and viruses, and building a human genome that can produce all 20 essential amino acids (currently, humans produce only 11, and need to eat to obtain the other 9). Kelley said that she will also be seeking proposals for pilot projects that relate to non-human genomes.
These pilot projects, along with other aspects of GP-Write, will be discussed at meeting that will probably happen in May 2017, Kelley said.