Magazine

Biotech

What if we built our own genome?

Writing DNA from scratch is the aim of a new scientific project organized in part by Harvard geneticist George Church.

( CREDI: Wyss Institute at Harvard University ) for GameChangers 051417genome ---- Harvard geneticist George Church is working on moving large pieces of a genome from one place to another in the laboratory without breaking them. Long strands of DNA -- the substance that makes up the genome -- are like spaghetti, he says: brittle and prone to snapping into pieces.

Wyss Institute at Harvard University

George Church.

At the turn of the millennium, scientists accomplished a landmark feat — they decoded all 3 billion letters of the human genome, the instruction manual inside each of our cells that informs the course of our life. Now researchers want to take a new step: Start with a blank slate and “write” those 3 billion letters from scratch.

The Genome Project-Write aims to build a smorgasbord of genomes , from plants and animals to, yes, humans — to help us better understand how these work. In this early phase, scientists are developing technology to make the construction project feasible.

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One of the project’s organizers, Harvard geneticist George Church, is working on moving large pieces of a genome from one place to another without breaking them. Long strands of DNA — the substance that makes up the genome — are like uncooked spaghetti, he says: brittle and prone to snapping into pieces.

Jef Boeke, another organizer, says that the group is also trying to make DNA-writing technologies much cheaper. At today’s prices, even if it were technologically possible — and it’s not — it would cost about $300 million just to print out the letters of the human genome. Boeke, director of the Institute for System Genetics at New York University’s medical school, says another goal is to cut that cost to $300,000 over the next 10 years.

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