Genome Editing and the Christian

(system) #1

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(James A. Reneau) #2

Dr. Hardin, I appreciate your timely post. One of the most pressing questions on my mind is; what would it mean, theologically, if we did alter the human genome, implant said embryos and carry them to term? I can understand the ethical considerations to some degree, but what I cannot begin to understand is what this means for the sanctity of human life and human identity. Being made in the image of God is intrinsic to human identity, but will we be made in the image of God and the clinical geneticist?

Furthermore, working with adult patients, I can tell you how rigid fully formed adults are, and the difficulty of altering pathology. However, the pliability of the genome seems like power over our fellow human brothers and sisters to the nth degree. This will also alter our identity. I already feel like a different human just knowing that someone has the ability to alter my future children or other future relatives. Either way, I appreciate your work and I hope you continue to work on these complex issues for us young(ish) researchers.

(Reggie O'Donoghue) #3

I agree whole-heartedly. Though I will ask, what about non-human life? Is genetic testing on animals (not in the Imago Dei) acceptable. Though it would be cool to see dinosaurs created from chickens, I am wary of the health affects genetically modified animals may have.

(Jeff Hardin) #4

Dear James,
These are great points. I personally think that we are not in a position as fallen, fallible, limited creatures to take our genomes into our own hands. One reason (although not the only one) is that I am very skeptical that we will limit - as a society - the uses of genome engineering to “broken” genes. You are right that there is great power to control implicit in this technology. This is especially true once we edit the human germ line. As you point out, defining what are the essential qualities that allow us as a species to be God’s image-bearers is a crucial one as well. We are called by God to be so as an act of sheer grace, but there are clearly biological correlates to this image-bearing.

Another issue of control you didn’t mention is that to apply this to embryos will lead to loss of human individuals. The lab in Oregon I mentioned in the talk who performed CRISPR on human embryos to repair a mutation had no qualms about the subsequent destruction of the engineered embryo(s). I think for many secular thinkers this is not a problem because for them an embryo is not “human” (or a “person”) prior to to the onset of higher brain activity. However, for me the embryo is not a “potential human being”, but a human being with potential: when allowed to develop, it will display the full range of his/her capabilities. As a result, I would not approve of intentional destruction of experimental embryos in this way.

Now suppose we had a technology sort of like the vacuum injection systems in the old TV show Star Trek, that could deliver a gene editing cocktail to somatic cells in the body. What then? I think one bright line that many Christian think should not be crossed is the enhancement vs. repair boundary. In the full talk I discuss the National Academies recommendations. Their current recommendation is only to consider repair: replacing a “broken” allele with a functional one already represented in the current population. This is a clear distinction for something like Tay Sachs disease, in which mutations in the beta-hexosaminidase A gene are well understood, render the protein non-functional, and for which a replacement sequence is known. There may, in theory, be a few cases of such a clear-cut nature. This is far less clear for most genes, however, which exhibit a gradation of function, or are are pleiotropic, and especially for traits that are multigenic (i.e., the action of multiple genes is required for the expression fo the phenotype).

I suppose, in a clear cut case like Tay-Sachs, one could imagine a somatic therapy in which the bad allele is replaced with the good one in a large percentage of somatic cells. No such technology exists currently, however, and would probably have to be delivered in utero for diseases like Tay-Sachs. Even so, the collateral unintended application issue remains. The technology could easily be applied to other situations, or to deliberately disable a gene in some humans.

You’re also right about the refractive nature of adult bodies. I think a likely situation in the very near future is CRISPR-based engineering of induced pluripotent cells in a limited number of cases, e.g., the substantia nigra to treat Parkinson’s. You may know that clinical trials using such approaches have, in general, been underwhelming, but time will tell about their efficacy.

I’m encouraged that you are so thoughtful! Engaging a large group of thoughtful Christians around these issues is crucial now, before the freight train of technology is moving too quickly.

(Jeff Hardin) #5

Dear Reggie,
On the science side, there is currently no scientific evidence that genetically modified animals pose a health risk. Many have pointed out that the organisms we eat have been modified - not by direct DNA manipulation, but by selective breeding over centuries/millennia. That said, I understand your nervousness. Regarding the Jurassic Park scenarios, I did quote Jeff Goldblum’s character’s line in my full talk (“Life always finds a way…”). Our history with trying to manipulate ecosystems via introduced species (e.g. in Australia) reflects, overall, a pretty mixed track record! This again gets back to the need for extreme humility in the face of technologies that have the potential to lead to consequences far beyond the original intention.

(Phil) #6

Lots to think about. There is a lot of potential in diseases like cystic fibrosis, and hemoglobinopathies, but a lot of pitfalls as well.

(Reggie O'Donoghue) #7

I meant the health of the animal itself. The Pyrenean Ibex, when brought back, lived only five minutes. I fear the same may happen to the Woolly Mammoth.


I think direct genetic manipulation of the human genome is one of the biggest ethical dilemmas that the up and coming generation of biologists is going to have to face.

The first big hurdle is risk v. reward. CRISPR/Cas9 is a very powerful tool, and if it does exactly what we design it to do then I think it can be very safe. You would be changing a gene so that it matches alleles already in the population, so we know that those alleles are safe. However, the newest research is indicating that CRISPR/Cas9 is not 100% reliable. It can and does go off target and make changes that we do not intend, and perhaps at a higher rate than scientists were hoping for. This puts people at risk for other diseases, such as cancer. Therefore, we have to weigh lethal diseases (e.g. Tay Sachs) on one side and an increase in risk for cancer on the other. Even before we get into the other ethical dilemmas, risk v. reward poses some serious questions. I could also envision other technologies that actively sort gametes based on single alleles, so for diseases like Tay Sachs there could be other options.

The most interesting question of all is if we are “playing God”. Why do we think that manipulating DNA is playing God? Where did that come from? Is it any different than altering our bodies through chemistry after conception? We take steroids and non-steroidal drugs that alter the pattern of gene expression in our genes. We have plastic surgery that can alter the way we look. We can take psychoactive drugs that alter the way we think. There was even a time when people thought lightning rods went against God because we were telling God where to the put lightning. I am certainly not discounting peoples’ apprehension when it comes to genetic manipulation since I share that same apprehension, but I am curious where that apprehension comes from. How different is it to change a few bases in a genome than it is to have someone take a chemical that alters their body for the rest of their lives?

The last part that I am not sure how to approach is the theological outlook, mainly because I don’t see any need to tell people what they should believe when it comes to religion. However, I can’t help but feel that some believers are taking a position that I would view as being materialistic. If changing our DNA changes our souls, then are our souls materialistic? What does this say about Dualism, or the meaning of “in God’s image”? What MCR1 allele do people think God has? I would like to say that this would be a really interesting conversation to have over a cup of coffee or a pint, but this may be the conversation people are having during lab meetings right now.

(Jeff Hardin) #9

Sorry Reggie! I misunderstood you. You’re right that attempts to perform cloning by somatic cell nuclear transfer (the technique used with the ibex you mentioned, different from direct editing of existing, living animals’ genomes) has a high failure rate. Dolly the sheep was the one success in 277 attempts, and one can question whether a technology is ethical with that sort of failure rate, even in other mammals. In humans such high failure makes it ethically unacceptable to all but a tiny minority of people. Even if success rates could be improved technically (and this seems likely eventually), many of the same ethical issues remain: the advisability of editing the human genome given our wisdom, our standing as God’s image-bearers, etc.

(Jeff Hardin) #10

Dear @T_aquaticus,
Thanks for this and for your great posts on the Forum. As someone who works in a “secular” research university environment I appreciate your posts. CRISPR/Cas9 does have “off-target” effects that are a current, serious technical challenge if it is used to edit the germline (the cells that make eggs/sperm), because the off-target effects are then heritable. Those off-target effects could lead to unintended consequences, including cancer, etc. This is a reason - based on safety alone - not to edit the germline, and will limit use in editing somatic cells as well. If induced pluripotent cells (iPS cells) are edited, then the genome of the edited cells could be assessed for off-target effects, given that sequencing costs are coming down.

I also think you’re right about gamete sorting one day, if one could use a non-injurious staining technology to detect gametes with the “wrong” allele. Currently preimplantation genetic diagnosis is the method used to screen for homozygous recessive embryos in cases like Tay-Sachs. For those opposed to intentionally destroying human embryos (as I am), this is ethically problematic, because embryos with the ring genotypes are discarded.

“Playing God” is a complicated issue! Humans in biblical perspective are called to be stewards. In this sense they are called to act as God’s vice-regents, exercising God-like, delegated control over His creation. However, genome editing, as does cybernetic implants that fundamentally alter brain function, are getting at the core of who we are. Thus I put this situation in a new, troubling category. Given the Bible’s notion of human sinfulness, which I believe has been borne out by history, I am indeed “apprehensive”, and pessimistic that we have the wisdom to use this technology for restricted purposes for which it might be intended. The commodification of humans I mention is another issue that I think many underestimate.

Regarding the last point: I think you’re right that many Christian biologists discussing these issues are acting like pure Christian physicalists, i.e., being human, including our spiritual capacities, is purely a result of our special biology. This is one orthodox view. The vast majority of the Christian tradition, however, has acknowledged a non-physical aspect to humans, i.e., some sort of dualism. This does affect how one thinks about these issues to some extent. That said, all dualists, Thomistic or Cartesian, grant some sort of interaction between our bodies and our souls, so manipulating our biology would seem to lead to effects on the immaterial aspect of who we are. The image of God is likewise a contested topic biblically and theologically. Even if it is primarily an election of our species as pure grace, their are functional correlates of image-bearing. What constitutes a fundamental alteration of who we are - biologically and theologically - is a deep question that will require many pints to discuss!


A lot of work has to be done on specificity. The optimist in me hopes that they will reach their goal, but the realist in me realizes that they may never get there. Time will tell!!

My colleagues are using cell sorting now, but that is for surface proteins. It would be pretty cool if both eggs and sperm could be prescreened for a handful of markers such as Tay-Sachs. The BRCA mutations would be another big one given their association with breast cancer in young women. It must be difficult for mothers who know they have this allele and then seeing their daughters get breast cancer in their 30’s and 40’s.

Thankfully, the scientific community is more open to outside criticism than it has been in the past. When it comes to ethics we should hear everyone in the community, including those who have religious problems with research and treatments. Of course, scientists aren’t perfect, but at least there is improvement.

Biology is a lot easier than Bioethics. Of that I am sure.

Thanks for your post!