Gene Editing in Embryos | The BioLogos Forum

Last month, a team of Chinese scientists reported that they edited the genome of human embryos. This international first has raised widespread alarm and some debate in the scientific community.

The research appeared in the April 18 issue of Protein & Cell. The group first submitted their results to top-ranking journals Nature and Science, but both journals rejected the submission due to ethical concerns. On April 28, an editor at Protein & Cell defended the journal’s decision to publish the study:

In this unusual situation, the editorial decision to publish this study should not be viewed as an endorsement of this practice nor an encouragement of similar attempts, but rather the sounding of an alarm to draw immediate attention to the urgent need to rein in applications of gene-editing technologies, especially in the human germ cells or embryos.

The research group performed gene editing on non-viable embryos, but it is nevertheless troubling to many. The powerful new technology they used, called CRISPR/Cas9, has been used routinely for gene editing in other organisms since 2013, but until now had not been applied to human embryos. The group attempted to correct a faulty form of a gene that causes a severe blood disorder. Results were poor; many embryos in the experiment did not survive, and some of the remaining ones exhibited unexpected mutations.

On April 29, Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (and BioLogos founder), released a statement, in which he described the research and outlined the risks:

The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.

NIH, the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, does not support research involving gene editing of human embryos. The Society for Developmental Biology, the main professional society for scientists working in that field, also issued a position statement to voice concern about the work, calling for a “voluntary moratorium by members of the scientific community on all manipulation of pre-implantation human embryos by genome editing.”

How do I, as a Christian and a biologist, think about this development? I’m both troubled and encouraged. I’m troubled because the potential for harm with this new technology is real. It’s good that the Chinese researchers didn’t use viable embryos, but somebody, somewhere, might decide to do so. What if they create a human with some horrible, heritable defect? That would be a grievous event, indeed.

I’m also encouraged. The popular stereotype of scientists as godless atheists who try to push the ethical envelope just isn’t accurate: the scientific community as a whole takes safety and ethical considerations very seriously, as evidenced by the strong reaction to this paper. Important conversations will take place and new safeguards will be implemented.

I’m not a bioethicist, or even a working scientist at present. I hope there are many in both fields who will take up this issue. Life is precious--especially human life, made in the image of God. We, both in the church and in broader society, need to think carefully together about how new technology should be used, even as we give thanks for the fruitfulness of modern science, medicine, and technology.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I must admit that the prime reason to avoid gene editing on viable or non-viable embryos isn’t just that we might create something we didn’t anticipate and therefore impact a germ line, but rather we are created in the image of God an should not be experimentally toying with an image bearer. I’m all for the use of technology to improve the quality of life, whether gene therapy or ivf…, but it is not our place to reap the benefits of experimentation at the expense of another image bearer.

David, I’m sympathetic to your concern, but if that logic were carried out, we would have zero life-giving drugs available–all of them are tested for safety and efficacy in humans. It’s interesting that you bring up IVF. I think many Christians support it without fully understanding the fact that many embryos are created in the process that can never be born. Some are non-viable (like the ones used in the research described above) but many are viable–and those often get stored in freezers for an indefinite period of time. Is that ethical? As a society we seem to have agreed that the downside is worth the benefit of helping infertile couples have a child.

Why would we have no life giving drugs? I don’t think there are ethical issues regarding willing volunteers testing out meds that could potentially help them or others. Needless to say, my wife has spent the better part of 10 years trying off label meds to treat her chronic and debilitating illness, without much success. The problem is when they are not willing, or not able, to give consent. We considered ivf because we couldn’t have kids naturally but we would never have approved of jettisoning “non-viable” embryos for the sake of those with a better chance of survival. (So we adopted.) An embryo is a person. No one has the right to terminate the life of another. My comments are directed at addressing the experiment “for the greater good” without properly considering “at what expense of life and dignity”. Life is cheapened when a person just because a stepping stone to a greater societal good, hence the article above.

David, thanks for your thoughtful response. I took your first statement, that we “should not be experimentally toying with an image bearer,” to mean we shouldn’t experiment on any human life. Your second comment is a helpful clarification. I know Christians who have done IVF and ended up with beautiful, healthy children as a result. I don’t fault them, because I don’t know what I would have done if my husband and I couldn’t have had children, but in some cases it has led to difficult, unanticipated decisions about what to do with the extra embryos. Adoption is an amazing picture of the Gospel, but also not without its challenges! So each couple needs to make decisions with prayer and discernment and a sense of God’s calling.

As for whether it is ever ethical to experiment on an embryo, I am personally not ready to say “yes” or “no.” I don’t think it would be right to create embryos for the sake of experimenting on them, but what if they’re going to be discarded anyway (extras from IVF)? Some good could come from that, I think, if appropriate safeguards are in place. This is a weighty decision, because it doesn’t seem to me there is a clear “before” and “after” regarding personhood. At the same time, a newly-created embryo is a potential person–not the same as the person who comes into the world 9 months after conception. So I guess I don’t feel it’s a black and white decision.

(I should be clear to say, these are the personal musings of one cell biologist–I’m not speaking for BioLogos on these matters!)

Kathryn, I am a bit leary of the term “potential” person. An embryo obviously is a potential older person, but then, a fetus is a potential newborn, a child is obviously a potential adult, and an adult is a potential dead body. But when we say an embryo is a potential person, we should realize that the terminology is a bit absurd, because it is not a potential dog or cat, nor is it a potential pancreas, or fruit tree. It is only a potential person, that is a potential older person, and not potentially anything else. If it does not grow up to a person, it will be dead, as dead as the dead body of an older person. We can say that it has potential, all kinds of potentials when it becomes older, but we know that left alone it will become older. This is not so much potential, but inevitable (short of death). Eggs are potential, requiring only fertilization, but embryos already are more than potential. Nor can we argue that a frozen embryo is not as much human as a frozen cryogenic adult (if that were feasible). So I’m with David Schwartz on this one.

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