HGP-Write A Wish List In Plan’s Clothing

In the latest issue of Science is an immodest proposal from a number of genetic researchers for what they call The Genome Project – Write, or HGP-Write.  The name evokes a kind of CD recording media while staking ground for what would be a groundbreaking achievement – a dramatic reduction in the cost of engineering and testing large genomes (up to 100 billion base pairs) by over 1000-fold in the next ten years.

If I understand the proposal correctly – which is questionable as this reads more like the first draft of a roadmap rather than a project proposal – the ultimate goal of synthesizing a human genome would be accomplished after a great deal of work at smaller scales.  But widespread genome synthesis is still quite new.  For instance, the CRISPR suite of tools for more targeted genome editing are still under scrutiny for how they are being used and questions remain unanswered about how they should be used.

The proposal comes soon after a private meeting involving many of the authors to discuss HGP-Write.  The closed-door nature of the meeting and relatively small numbers involved prompted concerns and likely led to what one of the principals, George Church, calls a misunderstanding over what the project intends.  While genome synthesis is the goal, according to Church it is not intended to create humans out of whole cloth.

I think misunderstandings like this will make it harder for the project to get the $100 million in research commitments it seeks for 2016.  If HGP-Write wants to avoid some of the pitfalls that have faced dramatic technology changes such as genetically modified organisms, future meetings should be more public, and the conversations about the project need to be thoughtful and thorough about future applications and implications of the changes they want to make happen.

A short outline of HGP-Write is the start of the beginning, not the beginning of a project.

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