Scientists are contemplating a big follow-up to the Human Genome Project: Where that project essentially sought to read human DNA, this new endeavor would involve writing it. The idea, which is "spurring intrigue and concern in the life sciences community," as the New York Times reports, could enable scientists to essentially create human beings in the lab without biological parents. On Tuesday, about 150 scientists met at Harvard to talk about the project, the Washington Post reports. Attendees were told not to discuss the matter with the media or on social media, adding an air of secrecy to a concept that already raises plenty of ethical questions. "Just because something becomes possible, how should we approach determining if it is ethical to pursue?" Stanford bioengineering professor Drew Endy wrote in an essay published Thursday.
But Harvard researcher George Church, who helped organize the conference, says its intent, and its ostensible secrecy, are being misrepresented. The original plan was to live-stream the event, along with inviting numerous journalists, he tells the Post. But a companion article written by several scientists has yet to be published, so they decided to keep the conference private, lest they be accused of "science by press release." Ethical considerations have been discussed since the project's inception, he tells the Times. The goal, he adds, is not to create people, and would not be limited to the human genome. Instead, the improved ability to synthesize DNA (which is now possible, but expensive and difficult) in general could be applied to animals, plants, and microbes. In any event, the Post writes, "Something tells us this isn't the last time we're going to be talking about synthetic humanoids." (Read more science stories.)