In Brief
  • A human genome contains 3 billion base pairs, one project is seeking to write a complete human genome, besting current efforts able to produce 1 million pairs.
  • The researchers are looking to the future in hopes that their work will spur even further growth in science and technology.

A ‘Grand Challenge’

It’s been decades since the Human Genome Project was launched, a project which sought to map the entirety of the DNA structure of a human genome. With its success in 2003 came a myriad of advances in the field of medicine and biotechnology. Now, scientists want to write the first human genome by 2026.

Writing the human genome comes with its own set of challenges. Autodesk Fellow Andrew Hessel, speaking at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine 2016 says that while some organizations have been writing DNA, they are only able to produce a million-pair DNA constructs, a far cry from a human genome’s 3 billion pairs. “This is really hard work…trying to go from DNA to packaged chromosome put into a cell and functional is hard. I don’t want to gloss over the technical challenges,” Hessel said.

This projects stands to become one of the most ambitious projects in the field of synthetic biology. Previously, the most advanced development the field has seen was the creation of the yeast genome. “It took a year to design the yeast genome, even though there were barely any changes made to [it]. So, we need better design tools,” Hessel said.

Andrew Hessel Credit: Exponential Medicine
Andrew Hessel Credit: Exponential Medicine

Inspiring Confidence

Writing the human genome not only benefits the field of synthetic biology. It could also benefit in fields ranging from medicine to electronics. This is ample motivation to develop more efficient tools that speed up the completion of the project.

While 2026 may seem a bit too early, Hessel is confident that the time frame is enough if synthetic biology develops exponentially like how the Human Genome Project did.

When asked about the ethical implications of the project like the creation of synthetic babies, Hessel says, “We couldn’t advocate that.” It seems that his motivation stems more from the scientific and medical advancements that could come after such a feat as this. “I’m doing this because I want my daughter to literally have the best nanomedicine in the future, the best diagnostics, the best treatments.”