Can researchers synthesize an organism’s entire genome? The answer to this question is yes, and it has already been done.
In 2002, scientists in the US synthesized a viral genome for the first time. Viral genomes are much smaller compared to the genomes of most bacteria and microorganisms. Scientists showed that it was possible to create the polio virus from scratch and brought attention to the risk that synthetic biology could be used to develop biological weapons. While this group of researchers did not intend to cause harm with their research, their work understandably raised concerns that bad actors might use synthetic biology for malicious purposes.
The first synthetic bacterial genome was completed in 2008 with the synthesis of the genome of Mycoplasm genitalium, a bacterium that can cause urinary and genital tract infections in humans. In 2017, another group of scientists partially synthesized the genome of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast that is used to make bread and brew wine and beer.
Today, researchers are continuing to push the limits of existing DNA-synthesis technology to help understand how genomes work. One group of researchers, called the “Genome Project-Write” (GP-Write)”, is seeking to synthesize, or “write” whole genomes from human cell lines and the genomes of other plants and animals important to agriculture and public health. The name of their project is a play on the Human Genome Project (HGP). In 2003, scientists working on the HGP sequenced, or “read”, the more than 3 billion DNA letters, or base pairs, that make up the human genome. One of the leading motivations for GP-Write is to stimulate innovation in DNA synthesis technologies through the proposed research. Importantly, the research in GP-Write involving human genomes will occur only in cells and no human embryos will be used in this research.
Every year, Scientific American highlights ten emerging technologies singled out by an international steering group of experts. The group, convened by Scientific American and the World Economic Forum, sifts through more than 75 nominations. To win the nod, the technologies must have the potential to spur progress in societies and economies by outperforming established ways of doing things. They also need to be novel (that is, not currently in wide use) yet likely to have a major impact within the next three to five years.
This year, synthetic biology made the list under the heading, “Whole-Genome Synthesis Will Transform Cell Engineering.”
According to Scientific American, “Whole-genome synthesis is an extension of the booming field of synthetic biology. Researchers use software to design genetic sequences that they produce and introduce into a microbe, thereby reprogramming the microbe to do desired work—such as making a new medicine. So far genomes mainly get light edits. But improvements in synthesis technology and software are making it possible to print ever larger swaths of genetic material and to alter genomes more extensively.”