Researchers Announce Plans to Engineer Complete Human Genome from Scratch

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Researchers Announce Plans to Engineer Complete Human Genome from Scratch


A new 'Grand Challenge' project with George Church and Andrew Hessel among the leadership team has been announced that will effectively take the learnings from the Human Genome Project to create an engineered version of human genetic code. 

A group of scientific, business and policy leaders have announced their intention to launch The Genome Project-write (HGP-write) this year.

The project will be an open, international research project led by a multi-disciplinary group of scientific leaders who will oversee a reduction in the costs of engineering and testing large genomes, including a human genome, in cell lines more than 1,000-fold within ten years.

The overarching goal of this effort is to understand the blueprint of life provided by the Human Genome Project (HGP-read).

According to the project materials, our understanding of the human genome – and the full benefits to humanity to be obtained from this knowledge — remains far from complete. Project scientists now believe that to truly understand our genetic blueprint, it is necessary to “write” DNA and build human (and other) genomes from scratch. Such an endeavor will require research and development on a grand scale.

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"Exponential improvements in genome engineering technologies and functional testing provide an opportunity to deepen the understanding of our genetic blueprint and use this knowledge to address many of the global problems facing humanity."
As detailed in the journal Science, the goal is to launch HGP-write in 2016 with $100 million in committed support from public, private, philanthropic, industry, and academic sources globally. The project will be implemented through a new, independent nonprofit organization, the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology.

HGP-write will build on the knowledge gained by The Human Genome Project (HGP-read), biology's first large-scale project that has sparked scientific and medical transformation, especially in genomic-based discovery, diagnostics, and therapeutics. Whereas HGP-read "read" DNA to understand its code, HGP-write will use the cellular machinery provided by nature to "write" code, constructing vast DNA chains.

According to the authors of the Science commentary, although "...sequencing, analyzing and editing DNA continues to advance at breakneck pace, the capability to construct DNA sequences in cells is mostly limited to a small number of short segments, restricting the ability to manipulate and understand biological systems."

The new effort is expected to lead to a massive amount of information connecting the sequence of nucleotide bases in DNA with their physiological properties and functions. As a result, HGP-write promises to have a significant impact on human health and other critical areas such as energy, agriculture, chemicals, and regenerative medicine.

HGP-write will be an open, international, multi-disciplinary research project with the following leadership team:
  • Jef Boeke, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Systems Genetics, Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, NYU Langone Medical Center. Dr. Boeke is a leader of the Synthetic Yeast Project (Sc2.0), which seeks to create living yeast cells with entirely redesigned chromosomes by 2017.
  • George Church, Ph.D., Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Senior Associate Faculty member at the Broad Institute. Among the leaders of the original HGP-read, Dr. Church currently heads an effort to create a version of the bacteria E.coli with a redesigned genome.
  • Andrew Hessel, Distinguished Researcher, Bio/Nano Research Group, Autodesk. He spearheads a multidisciplinary team exploring computer-aided design and manufacturing for biotechnology and nanotechnology R&D.
  • Nancy J Kelley, J.D., M.P.P., President & CEO, Nancy J Kelley & Associates, formerly Founding Executive Director, New York Genome Center. She is lead executive of HGP-write and the related Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology.
"This grand challenge is more ambitious and more focused on understanding the practical applications than the original Human Genome Project, which aimed to 'read' a human genome," said Church. "Exponential improvements in genome engineering technologies and functional testing provide an opportunity to deepen the understanding of our genetic blueprint and use this knowledge to address many of the global problems facing humanity."

Another proposed benefit of the project is the development of new genomics analysis, design, synthesis, assembly and testing technologies, with the goal of making them more affordable and widely available. "Writing DNA code is the future of science and medicine, but our technical capabilities remain limited," said Hessel. "HGP-write will require research and development on a grand scale, and this effort will help to push our current technical limits by several orders of magnitude."

"The overarching goal of such an effort is to understand the blueprint for life provided by the Human Genome Project (HGP-read)."

"Initially, our efforts will focus on synthesizing about 1% of the human genome to evaluate feasibility and value, just as was done for the HGP-read and just as we did for the Synthetic Yeast Genome Project, or Sc2.0," said Boeke. "The difference is that these 1% pilot projects will not be random; instead, they will be selected based on their ability to provide early-stage resources for biomedical research and development."

The Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology will coordinate and support the formation and work of multi-institutional and interdisciplinary research teams working in a highly integrated fashion, responsive to and engaged with a broad public outreach. Additional Centers could be included in the future.

Some applications that may arise from HGP-write that could have a significant impact on human health and lifespan longevity include, but are not limited to:

  • Growing transplantable human organs, thus saving the lives of thousands of patients globally who die waiting for donated organs from those who die from disease or accidents
  • Engineering immunity to viruses in cell lines
  • Engineering cancer resistance into new therapeutic cell lines
  • Enabling high-productivity, cost-efficient vaccine and pharmaceutical development using human cells and organoids that makes precision medicine more affordable and universal
"The Center will help to strengthen and support the efforts of the national and international communities on this endeavor," said Kelley. "But more importantly, the Center will represent a visible, stable, accountable and long-term commitment to advancing the field of engineering biology in the public interest."

This project developed from a series of meetings held over the last several years, including a meeting held at NYU Langone Medical Center on October 31, 2015. The latest meeting, held on May 10 in Boston, brought together a diverse group of 130 participants from many different countries, including biologists, ethicists, engineers, plus representatives from industry, law and government to discuss the next chapter in our understanding of the blueprint of life. A video of that meeting will soon be posted on

Human Genome Project-write - will it create Khan?

What is your opinion of the HGP-write project? Is it just a contemporary type of eugenics? Will it lead to the engineering of future threats like Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek?

The average human lifespan continues to expand as a result of advancements in science, medicine, and public health. The challenge today lies in living extended, healthy lives with minimal burden of disease – and the associated costs to society. The HGP-write project may grow to be a big factor in taking on this challenge.

SOURCE  PR Newswire

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