A ‘GRAND CHALLENGE’
- A human genome contains 3 billion base pairs, one project is seeking to write a complete human genome, besting current efforts able to produce 1 million pairs.
- The researchers are looking to the future in hopes that their work will spur even further growth in science and technology.
It’s been decades since the Human Genome Project was launched, a project which sought to map the entirety of the DNA structure of a human genome. With its success in 2003 came a myriad of advances in the field of medicine and biotechnology. Now, scientists want to write the first human genome by 2026.
Writing the human genome comes with its own set of challenges. Autodesk Fellow Andrew Hessel, speaking at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine 2016 says that while some organizations have been writing DNA, they are only able to produce a million-pair DNA constructs, a far cry from a human genome’s 3 billion pairs. “This is really hard work…trying to go from DNA to packaged chromosome put into a cell and functional is hard. I don’t want to gloss over the technical challenges,” Hessel said.
This projects stands to become one of the most ambitious projects in the field of synthetic biology. Previously, the most advanced development the field has seen was the creation of the yeast genome. “It took a year to design the yeast genome, even though there were barely any changes made to [it]. So, we need better design tools,” Hessel said.
A “top secret" meeting of scientists was held at the Langone Medical Center on Halloween 2015. Their aim? To kickstart a new Human Genome Project and build a functional human genome from the base pairs up by 2026.
“There's only one grand challenge in synthetic biology. Only one. And it's to write a human genome. And we have to do that,” said Autodesk Fellow Andrew Hessel at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine 2016 conference.
Like the first Human Genome Project before it — which resulted in the first fully sequenced human genome — writing a human genome from scratch is an audacious goal. Hessel said a number of organizations are already writing DNA, and we can fabricate million-pair DNA constructs. But the human genome contains three billion base pairs.
We’re a long way from writing DNA on that scale.
“It took a year to design the yeast genome, even though there were barely any changes made to [it]. So, we need better design tools,” Hessel said.
Work on the yeast genome is the most advanced thing going on in synthetic biology. It's been pushing the field forward, but not as fast as Hessel would like. His career was hugely influenced by the race to map the first human genome in the 90s and early 2000s, and he thought to himself — now we need something like that for synthetic biology.
That's why Hessel and fellow scientists are pushing for a new Human Genome Project focused on synthetic biology — something to spark people’s imagination. That “top secret” meeting and a subsequent white paper made just the splash they were looking for.