One hundred and fifty experts and one sole goal: a synthetic genome. That is, creating the DNA contained in our chromosomes with non-natural elements. The summit was held at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. Absolute secrecy has been imposed on the content of the meeting. The subject is a delicate one, in fact: on the one hand, it is fascinating, since it might open scenarios that were unthinkable until a few years ago, on the other hand, it is worrying, because of its inevitable ethical consequences. Building the genetic map of a human being from scratch means creating a person lacking biological parents, a past or historical memory. A kind of ‘‘Blade Runner’’ model of replicant. A slap in the face of life, the way it has been given to us.
The initiative goes beyond the Human Genome Project, i.e., the colossal international business that in 2000 led to the mapping of the deoxyribonucleic acid. In this case, it means more than simply reading DNA, but writing it. In this sense, the scenario that worries many people the most is the risk that it will pave the way to certain future extremes, such as the ability to synthesize and reproduce certain sections or even make copies of certain people.
Drew Andy spoke up to raise this ethical question. He is a bioengineer at Stanford University who wrote an article exactly to criticize this type of project. Andy has not participated at the meeting at Harvard, despite the invitation he had received, because he considered this meeting too limited in terms of participation and with little attention to the ethical aspect of the question. But George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of the organizers of the proposed project has pulled the brakes, trying to clear the field from far-fetched interpretations: the project does not aim to create people, but only cells. A rather superficial evaluation: splitting the atom was supposed to be used to create a new source of energy too, but used for the atomic bomb instead.
Church also stated that synthetic DNA would not be restricted to human genomes alone, but aim to acquire and improve the ability to synthesize DNA in general, with possible use on plants, animals, and microbes. The project does not have funding yet, although some companies and foundations have expressed their interest in it, whereas requests for funding will be made also to the US federal government.
Temptation to manipulate universal laws of life and death is still strong in some gray areas of science. Progress, innovation, and technology are essential for the improvement of our existence. But it cannot erase a fundamental truth: they are not the ultimate goal of the Man, but merely serve him. We are part of a divine plan imprinted in nature. To rebel against it, for the sake of challenging the unknown, means to transform the very essence of humanity.