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Artificial Human

May 14, 2016

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Buried beneath reality show headlines, the NYT breathlessly informs us, “Scientists Talk Privately” about something. To wit, a group at Harvard has a secret meeting to plan to “create” an entire set of human chromosomes. Could this really be it–an Artificial Person? Without (gasp!) biological parents?

Like a rather bad Heinlein novel, there are enough contradictions to go around.

First of all, what’s so unique about making a human genome–something trillions of our own body cells do every day? The NYT informs us, the scientists will “use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA.” Mm-hm. So my own cells are made of what, if not chemicals? Cosmic ray particles, maybe?

What we call “chemicals” presumably means bulk processed petrochemical products stored in 1-kilo bottles obtained from Sigma-Aldrich or Thermo-Fisher. And “manufacture” means a concrete-slab factory, where mostly male persons “fabricate” things, as opposed to a bit of meat within a female that uses its own DNA copying enzymes.

But suppose, continues NYT, we could “use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents?”

Project leader George Church (who started out as a bacterial molecular biologist) assures us we’ve got it wrong. “They’re painting a picture which I don’t think represents the project,” Church observes. The project is “not aimed at creating people, just cells.”  Again, this claim represents a surprisingly parochial view of what constitutes the “natural” human reproductive process. We can argue endlessly over whether a fertilized egg or embryo constitutes a human being, but there can be no doubt that most of our bodies at some point developed from a single cell that became a few more cells.

The technology exists to replace the nucleus of an egg cell with a new nucleus. Could a “synthetic” set of human chromosomes replace the chromosomes of an egg cell?  What about a skin cell transformed into an egg, something also near possibility?

Of course, no article about artificial  human life is going to get away without mentioning Einstein. The crowning awful possibility: “Would it be O.K., for example, to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome? If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?”

Please–Enough already Einstein. Myself, I’d rather recreate Mileva Marić, the physicist whom Einstein got pregnant and married, and who probably co-created his most famous works.

So why create a synthetic human genome? We don’t know, given the “secret” nature of the Harvard meeting, but let’s give them a break and assume they just want a more efficient way to “construct” a genome out of various parts and see what it does in a cell. Cell culture is a lot more efficient than running after mini-humans (mice), as some of my students can attest. Nevertheless, we approach ever nearer the day when any skin cell could become a human.

 

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7 Comments
  1. Alexander Tolley permalink
    May 14, 2016 11:40 am

    My thought is that totally synthetic genomes could be tailored to answer very specific questions and would be a guarantee of perfect cloning without introduction point mutations for reproducing experiments. It would even allow the idea that Church floated of replacing all the codons to remove certain sequences and make changes that would provide various benefits.

    A secondary (or might that be primary?) goal might be to undermine the religious argument about this being a natural human being and how dare we experiment on God given nature with humans.

    While it might be historic, it is only different in degree, not kind, with Venter’s creation of an “artificial bacterium” a few years ago. We’ve seen where this has led, and I see this concept as going down a similar path for human genomes.

    .

    • May 14, 2016 11:46 am

      Yes, your first paragraph describes what they have in mind. In principle, you could make a genome that omits all kinds of small “errors.” Each of our genomes contain several “lethal” mutations, as well as countless other gene versions that could be bad under certain conditions. This is fine for research, but in reality we know so little about how genes work that we’re quite far from doing it. In fact, there probably is no such thing as a “perfect” genome because good or bad are contingent. Even for E. coli we have no idea what a perfect genome is.

      • May 14, 2016 11:52 am

        For research reproducibility, that boils down to whether industrial DNA synthesis is any more accurate than DNA polymerase enzymes. Once you put the genome in a cell, it gets replicated by polymerases anyway.

  2. May 14, 2016 12:37 pm

    You get the feeling that some chromosome-manipulators may be cut from the same cloth as those people who’ve recently abridged the Voting Rights Act—they want to corral certain types of people into different subsets of rights and privileges, even if they have to manufacture them to do it. I get cognitive dissonance just considering the surplus of natural-born humans overcrowding the planet as we study how to make more, out of skin cells. I think any artificial human project should include plans for an artificial planet nearby, seeing as how we’re well on the way to overrunning the natural humans’ biome.

    It would make more sense to learn how to ‘improve’ natural gene-pairings, fixing the code of children who’d otherwise be born with congenital drawbacks—but even that problem could conceivably wait until we’ve learned how to find nurturing environments for all the natural-born orphans whose only lack is parentage. Even of those children blessed with at least one parent, many are being deprived of the nutrition, training, and education required to raise a healthy human.

    Of course, I realize that the same reasoning could be used to claim that we shouldn’t bother with space exploration until we’ve learned how to stop people from texting while driving—but it’s not quite the same thing.

    I was fascinated by your mention of Mileva Marić—perhaps men used to use women like they now use computers—as something that does the bulk of the intellectual effort, without any need to share credit for the results. She is far from the only woman left out of the ‘achievement circle’ of scientific advancements—the only time a woman was given credit was the case of Marie Curie—and then we tend to ignore her husband’s partnership—as if it’s almost as important to deny that men and women can collaborate as it is to deny that women can be smart!

    But the main problem for you biologists is the paradox of Enlightenment—it allowed the ascendancy of science while it also glorified the individual. When we get down to the nitty gritty, we ‘glorious’ humans are made of cells, and science can diddle with cells ‘til the cows come home. The abortion debate is merely a special case in the greater argument over when humans are glorious individuals with inalienable rights—and when humans are a science experiment. As a cancer survivor and liver transplant recipient, I approach that dividing line every time I go to see my doctors, especially the specialists.

    • May 14, 2016 9:55 pm

      “men used to use women like they now use computers”
      Yes, many Nobel-winning molecular biologists had wives who shared their work but not the credit. Today, they share with supercomputers. That’s why I write so much about computers waking up.

      • May 15, 2016 6:32 pm

        Talk about a nagging wife! How do you win an argument with a supercomputer? Tell it to divide by zero?

  3. Alex Tolley permalink
    May 17, 2016 11:36 am

    Post by Drew Endy and Laurie Zoloth om the conference:
    https://cosmosmagazine.com/society/should-we-synthesise-human-genome

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