Scientists intend to have fully synthesised the genome in a living cell – which would make the material functional – within ten years, at a projected cost of $1 billion
In July 2015, 100 geneticists met at the New York Genome Center to discuss yeast. At 12 million base pairs long, it’s the largest genome scientists have tried to produce synthetically.
Andrew Hessel, a researcher with the Bio/Nano research group at software company Autodesk, was invited to speak at the event. The audience asked him which organism should be synthesised next. “I said, ‘Look around the room. You’ve got hardly anyone here and you’re doing the most sophisticated genetic engineering in the world,” Hessel recalls. “Why don’t you take a page out of history and set the bar high? Do the human genome.”
This triggered a panel discussion that stuck in Hessel’s mind for weeks. Soon afterwards, he contacted George Church, a prominent geneticist at Harvard University, to gauge his interest in launching what would effectively be the Human Genome Project 2.0. “To me it was obvious,” Hessel recalls. “If we could read and analyse a human genome, we should also write one.”
A year later, his provocation had become reality. In May 2016, scientists, lawyers and government representatives converged at Harvard to discuss the Human Genome Project-Write (HGP-Write), a plan to build whole genomes out of chemically synthesised DNA. It will build on the $3 billion (£2.3bn) Human Genome Project, which mapped each letter in the human genome.
Leading the Harvard event was Church, whose lab is synthesising the 4.5-million-base-pair E. coli genome, and Jef Boeke 1, the NYU School of Medicine geneticist behind the yeast synthesis project. “I think we realised the two of us were getting good enough at those two genomes that we should be discussing larger ones,” says Church.
A Science paper published after the meeting formally laid out the group’s proposal: to dramatically advance DNA-synthesis technologies so that the artificial production of genomes becomes easier, faster, and cheaper. Currently, we can synthesise short strands of DNA, up to about 200 base pairs long, but the average gene has several thousand base pairs. Even this limited process is inefficient, costly and slow. But it’s vital: in biological sciences, synthesised DNA is the foundation of experiments that drive everything from cancer research to vaccine development. For scientists, it’s like working with a blunt yet necessary instrument.