Scientists Raise Concern By Wanting To Create Synthetic Human Genomes

May 14, 2017
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Hundreds of scientists from around the world converged in New York this past week to push forward an ambitious and controversial project. They want to create synthetic genomes, artificial genetic codes, in their labs, including the human genetic code. NPR Health correspondent Rob Stein sat in on their talks, and he joins us now to explain what they're doing and the concerns it raises.


ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hi, nice to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This sounds pretty controversial and like something we want to hear about.

STEIN: Yeah, it sounds really futuristic, doesn't it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It does. It does. Let's start with the basics, though. When we say scientists want to synthesize genetic codes of living organisms - that's a big mouthful - including humans, what do we mean exactly?

STEIN: Yeah. So you know, scientists know how to read the genetic code. What they want to do now is what they call write the genetic code, write DNA. And what that means is they essentially want to assemble or manufacture genomes from the chemical building blocks it's made of for all kinds of living organisms, including, as you said, people. And they want to be able do it in their labs quickly, efficiently and cheaply so it becomes something really practical and easy to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I guess the question is - why do they want to do this? But also, it sounds like almost acting like creators themselves. I mean, are they acting as - can they create something completely new?

STEIN: Yeah, well that's it. They actually - that's what they want to do. They basically want to harness the power of biology to solve some of the biggest problems that faces humanity right now. It's a field of science known as synthetic biology. And basically, what they want to do is they want to be able to build genetic codes, sort of like the way computer programs program computers. They want to be able to write DNA, rewrite it - to be able to make organisms, living things, do whatever they want it to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. This does sound controversial. Tell us why.

STEIN: Well, there are lots of reasons why it's controversial. One of the reasons is, OK, if they create new organisms, like synthetic bacteria or synthetic plants, what happens when they get out in the environment? They could have unforeseen consequences and sort of wreak havoc in the environment somehow. If it happens accidentally or even on purpose, there could be unforeseen impacts. Another reason people are concerned about it is, what happens if bioterrorists get a hold of it and they try to use this technology to create new biological weapons?

And the big kind of boogeyman in the room is, you know, what if scientists could create a fully synthetic human genome? Could someday somebody try to use that to create synthetic people? And that kind of conjures up all kinds of "Brave New World" images of designer babies and some kind of super-race and things like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It absolutely does. I mean, it sounds like something exactly out of "Brave New World" or "Gattaca." We always bring up, of course, science fiction movies when we talk about this, but is the genie out of the bottle? I mean, we've seen that once scientists can do something, they do do something. So what happens next?

STEIN: Yeah, so that's the fear. I mean, the scientists that are behind this project are - stated very clearly they have no interest in doing anything like that, and we're nowhere near being able to do anything like that. All they want to do is create maybe synthetic human cells to create - make them - turn them into, like, little factories to churn out better medicines or vaccines or replacement organs for people who need organ transplants. But the fear is that somebody someday could try to take this further. And so the scientists that are behind this - they're very much aware of the concerns and the fears about this, so they're trying to build into this project safeguards to prevent something like that from ever happening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But any discussion of regulating it?

STEIN: Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, the organizer did bring in a bunch of bioethicists to attend this meeting to really remind people of the concerns people have about this. And for example, one of the bioethicists got up in the opening stages of the meeting to remind people that this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," and people could sort of draw a connection between these two events in their minds. And so they had to be really careful. They had to be really transparent to make sure that society has an open debate about this sort of thing before it gets too far down the road.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, Rob Stein, NPR Health correspondent, thanks so much.

STEIN: Oh, sure. Great being here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.