A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interacting with participants in an online forum. The questions I encountered there are similar to ones I often think about and am asked when I’m out and about. I thought I’d share some of the questions and my responses here on Theorems & Theology.
Jimmy posted the following thoughts and questions:
Hi, AJ. I watched a 60-minute segment on a technology called CRISPR. They interviewed Jennifer Doudna, who they credited with being the coinventor of this process. What struck me about the interview was her dream. The host asked her if she had any misgivings about her inventions and she described the dream. In it, she saw a silhouetted man who asked (from memory something to this effect) “Did you invent this technology?” She said that as she answered the man moved out of the light and it was Adolf Hitler.
I know that every new technology brings with it challenges—both moral and ethical—but this technology seems to have the power to change our very beings. Could you share your thoughts on this? How powerful is this technology? Is the genie out of the bottle?
I think CRISPR technology will revolutionize the future, and like all technologies it has immense potential for good and for evil. I think the potential it holds is on the same scale as nuclear power and the potentially destructive scope is no less for CRISPR than for nukes. I don’t mean to sound like an alarmist (or the narrator that left me terrified of killer bees for most of my childhood)—but the potential of CRISPR technology to be used to alter organisms throughout various ecosystems, as well as possibly one day humans—is real, and currently, the former is much more frightening.
Jennifer Doudna is, or at least has been, very concerned about using CRISPR with caution. In December 2016 a group of scientists from the US, Canada, UK, and China met and discussed what self-imposed restrictions should be placed on CRISPR. Currently, in vitro research in human embryos takes place in some labs in the UK, US, and China. The embryos are not taken beyond 14 days post-fertilization and are never intended to be implanted or taken to full term. This, in and of itself, is an ethical issue for many people—creating embryos to study them up through 14 days and then terminating them. The 14-day cutoff was carefully set as this is the time during embryogenesis when cells are just beginning to differentiate and form the primitive streak which precedes neurulation by a few days.1 But due to CRISPR technology and other advances, there is some growing debate as to whether or not to extend this date beyond 14 days so more can be learned about early human development. This remains an area of concern.
The best (least controversial) human applications for CRISPR technology are in somatic cells, and in individuals after birth. The DNA in somatic cells is not passed on to offspring, so changes remain limited to a particular individual. In this application CRISPR affects targeted cells only in that individual and may bring an end to many diseases associated with mutations in single genes.
There are still many challenges associated with using CRISPR this way, including how to target the CRISPR to the right cells, whether there are enough cells, and to have it work efficiently in those targeted cells at the specific site targeted and not at any other off-target site of the DNA. There are a lot more challenges and I’ve written a few blogs and talked about them in some of our podcasts at RTB. (See Resources below.) In these resources, I and others describe the technology, discuss many of its potential applications and challenges, raise some ethical considerations, and debunk some rather sensational speculations.
I’ve spoken on the CRISPR challenge a couple of different times (with RZIM in Peru and at the annual ASA meeting in 2016). And it’s something I care about quite a lot. So, thanks for asking this question.
I believe that a robust Christian apologetic includes not just answering questions about our faith but unpacking the breadth, depth, and beauty of the Christian worldview. As we show the coherence of the Christian worldview and its correspondence to reality—including the reality of our deepest desires for meaning and purpose—we present a more attractive and robust (and defensible and reasonable) faith. In light of this, I think Christians need to be informed about CRISPR technology and engaged in conversations and in shaping policy that determines how CRISPR will be used in the US (and everywhere else) and what our government should allow and regulate in the agricultural industry as well as in the pharmaceutical industries and areas potentially impacting human health. We are meant to be good stewards of God’s creation. How we manage technologies like CRISPR is directly related to how well we will care for God’s creation and live out God’s plan as those made in his image.
- “A Bacterial Protein (CRISPR/Cas9) Will Change Life on Earth” by Anjeanette Roberts (article)
- “Needed: Good Stewards of Genome Editing” by Anjeanette Roberts (article)
- “Pigs Thinking like Humans: Reality or Hogwash?” by Anjeanette Roberts (article)
- “Gene Editing Human Embryos to Remove Disease (Extended)” (podcast)
- Description: Genome editing could be applied to correct disease-causing mutations in human embryos, but concerns about efficacy and safety are paramount. A team of US-based scientists who genetically edited scores of human embryos to remove a disease gene say they’ve laid the foundation for trying to create the first gene-modified people. Related article: “Correction of a Pathogenic Gene Mutation in Human Embryos.”
- “Scientifica Episode 35: July 2017” (podcast)
- Description: Can CRISPR/Casz gene editing help restore vision even when multiple genes contribute to the cause of vision impairment? Apparently, yes. By targeting two proteins that control an entire network of gene products, rod cells can be converted to cone cells and physiology signals restored. Other applications for fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria and human gut pathogens and engineering T-cells to fight cancer are discussed. Related articles: “Gene and Mutation Independent Therapy via CRISPR-Cas9 Mediated Cellular Reprogramming in Rod Photoreceptors,” “Modified Viruses Deliver Death to Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria,” and “Targeting a CAR to the TRAC Locus with CRISPR/Cas9 Enhances Tumour Rejection.”
- “Scientifica Episode 30: February 2017” (podcast)
- Description: Using the technologies of induced pluripotent stem cells and CRISPR/Cas gene editing, will researchers be able to design and create chimeric animals expressing human tissues? We discuss the research strategy and findings, current challenges, potential medical applications and ethical implications such as, “What does it mean to steward creation well through research and applications related to this study?” Related article:“Interspecies Chimerism with Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells.”
- This is a correction from my answer to Jimmy, where I mistakenly said the 14-day cutoff was due to the timing of differentiation of neural crest cells. Neural crest cells form a little later at embryonic days 19–20.