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Behind Closed Doors

The brouhaha over the closed-door meeting last week to discuss the creation of synthetic human genomes is a misunderstanding, Harvard Medical School's George Church tells the New York Times.

Church and his co-organizers invited some 130 scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and government officials to the meeting, but barred members of the press and instructed attendees not to post about the meeting on social media, Stat News adds. The co-organizers of the meeting include Jef Boeke from New York University Langone Medical Center and Andrew Hessel from the software company Autodesk, the Times notes.

But in an essay at Cosmos, Stanford University's Drew Endy and Laurie Zoloth from Northwestern University argue that such discussions shouldn't take place behind closed doors. "Pluralistic, public, and deliberative discussions are instead the best appropriate way to frame paths forward," they write. Endy was invited to the meeting, but declined to attend.

"They're painting a picture which I don't think represents the project," Church tells the Times.

The project was originally dubbed 'HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project' and an invitation to the meeting said that the goal of the initiative "would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years," according to the Times.

By the time the meeting actually occurred, the project title evolved into 'HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells,' and in a consensus statement given to Stat News, the organizers say the purpose the meeting was "to discuss the concept of an international project focused on large genome synthesis as the next chapter in our understanding of the blueprint of life."

Church tells the Times that it the discussions took place in private as the organizers had submitted a paper outlining the project to a journal, and they were trying to abide by its embargo restrictions. "I'm not sure that was the best idea," Church now tells Stat News. He adds that the paper should be out soon and then a video of the meeting will be available.

However, Stat News notes that Endy posted on Twitter a message appearing to be from the organizers that instead indicates that the meeting was closed "because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted as the discussions evolve."

The Center for Genetics and Society's Marcy Darnovsky also tells Stat News that such a closed-door discussion doesn't adhere to the ideals set forth at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing that said clinical changes to the human genome should only occur if there is "broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed alteration."

Church, though, adds that the project isn't that far along. "This is purely a thought experiment," he says. "It may not be as big news as it sounds."