There were nearly 150 bright minded scientists who attended the closed-door meeting at Harvard Medical School in Boston. They were all told explicitly to not contact the media and not to tweet during the meeting on March 10th. The surreptitious nature of this conference is strange enough, but the subject matter is downright alarming: artificial genome creation. Basically, a bunch of scientists got together in secret to discuss the future of growing babies in test tubes, without parents.
Now, genome modification has been around for a long time. But especially in the last decade, the science of DNA has developed to a point where we can clone animals and select which genetic and physical traits our children are born with. The science is incredibly complex, and is still very much in the early stages of development. But for many people who are uncertain whether messing with the genetic codes of Mother Nature is a good idea, the science is already unsettling. Many are passionately opposed to it.
The human genome is essentially the DNA blueprint for human life, and is a sequence of over 3-billion chemical “letters.” Up until now, scientists have only ever discussed reading this genome sequence, or altering it slightly to “design a baby.” But this meeting was held to discuss how to create that 3-billion letter sequence in a laboratory without any natural ingredients (i.e. sperm or eggs). A goal that could lead to breeding super-humans, or applied to other such sinister ends.
So it makes sense that this secret meeting discussing “how the synthesis of a complete human genome could be completed within 10 years” raised alarm. Why were these men and women of the science community hosting an underground meeting solely dedicated to the discussion of artificial DNA production? And what about their discussion was so controversial that it needed to be kept confidential?
These questions have yet to be answered. The idea of synthetic DNA generation and modification is not new – but meddling with human DNA sequencing is still very much in the idea phase. It is a relatively new field of science (although genetic engineering has been practiced for hundreds of years). Our technology has only recently developed to a point where the possibility of creating complete human genomes is a reality. But now that it is within the realm of possibility, to what ends will this strange and unnatural branch of knowledge become a tool for achieving?
Whatever the answer to that question, it can’t be anything the general public would tolerate – otherwise a covert meeting like this wouldn’t be necessary. Most of the time, when scientists discover something new or helpful they don’t go holding cloak-and-dagger sessions closed off to the media and public. They publish their findings in a study that can then be peer-reviewed. So what’s with the secrecy this time?
No matter the reason behind this odd meeting, many people are unsettled by it. But very few details concerning the subject matter or the true purpose of the conference have been publicly released. Whatever these reticent gene scientists were talking about will probably remain unknown, until weird and futuristic gene studies, tests and experiments are well under way. We can only hope that the powers of science and technology are in good hands… which isn’t really much of a hope at all.
Sources: http://www.sciencegroup.org.uk/ifgene/history.htm, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/14/science/synthetic-human-genome.html, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/synthetic-dna-harvard-secret-meeting-controversy-a7032836.html, http://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/scientists-hold-secret-meeting-to-consider-creating-a-synthetic-human-genome/, http://www.bbc.com/news/health-30742774