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The Genome Project Write: A Global Synthetic Biology Initiative

March 23, 2017

What is the Genome Project-Write?

Thirty-two years ago, the largest life science project ever conducted, the Human Genome Project (HGP), was proposed to “read” or sequence a human genome. Successfully completed in 2003, this project sparked a revolution in science that has changed the way we understand the human body and the world, and incited the advancement of technology which decreased the costs of sequencing by more than 3-million fold. However, despite this incredible leap forward in knowledge and technology, our understanding of the genome post-HGP is far from complete. For, in the words of Richard Feynman, “what I cannot create, I cannot understand.”

Thus, building on the knowledge and technological advances of the HGP, the Genome Project-Write (GP-Write), which is endeavoring to actively synthesize, or “write,” DNA to build complete complex genomes from scratch, is the natural next step in scientific progress.

To meet its objective of grand scale synthesis and genome editing over the next ten years, GP-Write will necessarily harness the collective power and expertise of the global scientific community to drive the development of the requisite tools, technology, and methods that are, at present, still undiscovered. To date, nearly 200 scientists from 15 countries have expressed interest in participating in the project, spurred on by a $250k seed from Autodesk. In total, the effort is expected to attract over $1B in funding.

What value will GP-Write generate?

The GP-Write will greatly advance and transform fundamental knowledge of the biology of living organisms. It will dramatically advance DNA-synthesis technologies to make the writing of genetic material more precise and the artificial production of genomes easier, faster, and cheaper.

GP-Write will catalyze the pursuit and development of the technology, tools, and expertise needed to synthesize whole genomes. This process alone will generate a wealth of information that will provide insights and answers to fundamental biological questions which have eluded scientific explanation thus far. For instance, relating the sequence of nucleotides in synthesized DNA to physiological properties and functional behaviors will greatly improve our knowledge of the large number of human genes with unknown function. Likewise, it will enable an understanding of the function of non-coding regions that make up the majority of the human genome. These developments will enable incredible insights into human biology and disease, and have the potential to transform our approach to health and illness.

Moreover, just as sequence costs plummeted following the HGP, GP-Write aims to decrease DNA synthesis costs by over 1000-fold. As DNA synthesis is already used as a platform technology in research, increasing accessibility will accelerate research and development across the spectrum of biotechnology, and improve the accessibility, breadth and quality of the research being conducted. For instance, the ability to design and synthesize DNA in a fraction of the time and at the fraction of the cost will largely enable scientists to create custom cell lines and organoids to study disease and discover drugs, and study plant traits such as yield and disease tolerance.

Furthermore, the ability to design custom genomes for industrially relevant organisms like plants and microbes engenders the ability to employ natural biology as a technology. Equipping engineers with the capability to digitally design and rapidly create cells as biological ‘apps’ will make using living cells and their powerful hardware as simple as computer programming. This will not only significantly speed up technical development and reduce time-to-market for existing applications, but will also enable previously unthinkable possibilities, like designing trees to grow in controlled shapes like houses or storing vast amounts of digital data in DNA hard drives. It will drive a transformation in how we produce materials, grow our food, treat disease, and remediate the environment – and usher in an era of using biology as a technology to inform and design solutions for the myriad of global challenges facing humanity today.

How are concerns about safety and ethics being addressed?

In a field centered on engineering and synthetizing entire genomes and creating new organisms, safety and ethical issues must be addressed parallel to technology development. Indeed, progress in technology development will necessarily create new, and often unforeseen, ethical and safety issues that must be analyzed and acted upon as they arise. Therefore, GP-Write is engaging a diverse array of perspectives “including leading experts, but more broadly harnessing the collective wisdom of ordinary members of the public” to consider the “ethical, legal/policy, social, religious, and other impacts” of GP-Write. The project infrastructure will also include the active engagement of the humanities and social sciences, including but not limited to bioethicists and legal scholars, and it will establish robust mechanisms for community engagement to enable inclusive decision-making.

How can Ontario scientists get involved?

GP-Write is still in its infancy, meaning Ontario scientists have the opportunity to make significant contributions to the work of the initiative and this emerging area of research. Here are a few ways to get involved:

  1. Visit the Engineering Biology Center to learn more
  2. Sign up to attend the May 2017 GP-Write Meeting at the New York Genome Centre
  3. Contact co-founder Nancy Kelley to join the consortium
  4. Submit a pilot project proposal