NYTimes | “By focusing on building the 3Gb of human DNA, HGP-write would push current conceptual and technical limits by orders of magnitude and deliver important scientific advances,” they write, referring to three gigabases, the three billion letters in the human genome.
Scientists already can change DNA in organisms or add foreign genes, as is done to make medicines like insulin or genetically modified crops. New “genome editing” tools, like one called Crispr, are making it far easier to re-engineer an organism’s DNA blueprint.
But George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of the organizers of the new project, said that if the changes desired are extensive, at some point it becomes easier to synthesize the needed DNA from scratch.
“Editing doesn’t scale very well,” he said. “When you have to make changes to every gene in the genome it may be more efficient to do it in large chunks.”
Besides Dr. Church, the other organizers of the project are Jef Boeke, director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center; Andrew Hessel, a futurist at the software company Autodesk; and Nancy J. Kelley, who works raising money for projects. The paper in Science lists a total of 25 authors, many of them involved in DNA engineering.
Autodesk, which has given $250,000 to the project, is interested in selling software to help biologists design DNA sequences to make organisms perform particular functions. Dr. Church is a founder of Gen9, a company that sells made-to-order strands of DNA.
Dr. Boeke of N.Y.U. is leading an international project to synthesize the complete genome of yeast, which has 12 million base pairs. It would be the largest genome synthesized to date, though still much smaller than the human genome.