Dick Ahlstrom: the genetically modified human - has its time come?

It should be possible to improve our immunity against viruses and cancer

Ethan Hawke in Gattaca, where a two-tier society emerges in the future comprised of those who can afford to be genetically modified and those who can’t.

Ethan Hawke in Gattaca, where a two-tier society emerges in the future comprised of those who can afford to be genetically modified and those who can’t.


Learning how to read DNA, the blueprint for life, has revolutionised science and medicine. It gave us new ways to intervene in disease, a deeper understanding of evolution and relatedness and the potential to introduce modifications in humans, animals and plants. Now a group of US scientists argue it is time to move on from just reading an existing genome, to writing the genetic code.

They are talking about building entire genomes as a way to create synthetic life. This would be grand-scale delving into DNA, assembling our own combinations or engineering a genome to take out flaws and errors – removing, for example, a genetic disease.

This is profound science. They are not talking about creating Mary Shelley’s monster or designer babies. They believe being able to write our own DNA, including billions of steps or base pairs, can address human health challenges.

Opportunities include growing your own transplantable human organs or using the power of DNA writing to re-engineer a pig’s genome so it can grow human- compatible organs. It should be possible to improve the effectiveness of our immunity against viruses and cancer. It could also be used in the production of cheap vaccines that are guaranteed to work and also new pharmaceuticals perfectly matched to tackle a disease.

A large group of scientists led by Jef Boeke of New York University, along with George Church, Andrew Hessel and Nancy Kelly and colleagues, declared in the journal Science a month ago that the time to build this technology is now.

Advances in our ability to pull together small strings of DNA and a powerful new genome-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 were helping to drive the need for technologies that would support large-scale assembly of DNA, they write.

For this reason they proposed the creation of the ‘Genome Project-Write’ and said it already has $100 million (€90 million) available in committed support from public, private, philanthropic and industrial sources to begin research.

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The goal is to make the kinds of scientific advances seen during ‘Genome Project-Read’, which resulted in the cost of writing out a human genome drop from about $3 billion to about $1,000. The cost of building a new large-scale genome using existing technology would be on a similar scale, the authors say.


The pursuit of knowledge via Genome Write is admirable but what about the elephant in the room? Research that espouses to build new genomes, greatly modify existing ones, or intervene in a way that causes a permanent change in the organism’s future offspring, will undoubtedly kick up a firestorm of protest on ethical and moral grounds.

Learning from the mistakes of the past, the authors recognise this and argue strongly that the project would require public involvement “and consideration of ethical, legal, and social implications from the start”. They even have a mnemonic for these implications, Elsi.

Their proposal argues responsible innovation requires more than Elsi; it has to involve ongoing dialogue between scientists and the public and other stakeholders very early on. They believe it should be possible to define a list of common goals that take local and regional values into account when deciding what research is appropriate to those regions.

Infectious agents

It also looks for an equitable distribution of benefits arising from the research, for example allowing scientific advances on crop plants or infectious agents to be used in developing nations. The scientists also suggest that a percentage of all research funds could be dedicated to these kinds of projects.

The scientists are even taking account of the likely tussle between ownership of discoveries, an echo of the nasty exchanges during the genome read project over who, if anyone, owns the intellectual property rights over a human gene. The researchers believe there would be broad intellectual property access via pooled patents to avoid this.

All of the discussion so far has been about transparency, but the frightening part relates to what is potentially going on in unethical private labs beyond public sight.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a new technology for genome editing that allows for pinpoint accuracy. It is also a comparatively simple technology to use, so you can be certain that rogue traders will seek to subvert any system of ethical control in order to make a profit out of CRISPR-Cas 9.

The same will hold true for genome writing and its promise of being able to modify your genome to erase risk genes for cancer, single gene mutations for conditions such as cystic fibrosis, or modify the family “germline”.

For this reason the authors call for the building of an ethical framework around genome engineering and creation.

If funding for Genome Write builds and real research muscle goes into it then there is no telling what it might deliver in time.

The objective will be to pull down the price of writing a genome until it is so low as to be of no consequence, as it was for the Genome Read effort.

Have your say: Are you in favour of creating new life forms by building up DNA components? Go to irishtimes.com/innovation