Bioethics Blogs

Fabricating Man

It has been reported that last week, a group of scientists met in a closed-door session at Harvard Medical School to discuss concrete steps and industry involvement to achieve the goal of synthesizing—creating in the laboratory—an entire human genome, and putting it into a cell, within 10 years.  Reportedly led by Harvard’s George Church, a leader and chief enthusiast of the technical prospects of genetic engineering, the meeting reportedly was aimed not at creating whole people, just human cells.  How reassuring.  This paragraph uses “reportedly” several times because media coverage—traditional or social—was shunned by the participants.

This would be a huge jump from the work in recent years to synthesize the whole, and then the “minimal,” genome of one species of bacteria.  But one can readily imagine the undertaking becoming feasible within the next generation or so.

Could such an effort be ethical?  Well, IF the only conceivable—not technically feasible, but conceivable, or able-to-be-intended—use was to create a specialized cell for cellular therapy, then one could do some level of mental gymnastics to argue that the effort was sufficiently circumscribed to warrant proceeding.

But of course the real goal would be to alter whole individuals—or “create” them—for some purpose, ostensibly good, but possibly mischievous.  As such, the laboratory synthesis of an entire human genome has unethical ends to begin with, so ought never be attempted.

Others closer to the work may not be so categorical but nonetheless think this is a place that we ought not charge to.  Specifically, Stanford bioengineer Drew Endy and Northwestern University bioethicist Laurie Zoloth have written an open letter criticizing the attempt.  Endy, who is on the cutting edge himself, and who offered thoughtful testimony to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues a few years ago about synthetic biology, was invited to the “invitation-only” meeting, but declined to attend. 

Read their entire letter here.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.