Needed: Good Stewards of Genome Editing

Needed: Good Stewards of Genome Editing

Recent scientific discoveries have opened up a whole new world where mere humans may be able to alter the genetic makeup of any organism at will. Does this solidify a new era of Homo evolutis, as some have suggested?1 We may now be living in a time in which humanity directs the evolutionary course of life on Earth, creating new organisms and altering ecological networks even more drastically than deforestation or hunting a species to extinction.

Surely such far-reaching, potential power brings the biblical charge to Adam and Eve to steward creation as God’s image bearers into a whole new realm of responsibility. What is our God-given role as stewards?

Gene-Editing and Cloning Have Been Around a Long Time

Dolly the sheep turned 20 last week, or she would have, if she was still alive.2 Dolly was the first animal to be successfully cloned, and news of her birth in July 1996 heralded the gene-editing era in which we now live. If gene-editing has been going on since the 1970s, why is it getting so much attention lately as something new?

It is because there is now a relatively inexpensive and easy tool to target specific genomic sites in practically any organism as long as you know the DNA sequence at the site you want to edit. Over the past 15 years, we have drastically improved DNA sequencing technology, providing us with an ever-increasing record of various organisms’ genomes. And just four years ago, CRISPR/Cas9 technology entered the scene. As gene-editing is continually being honed to be more specific and efficient, it is spreading like wildfire.

In a previous blog, we considered the implications of altering the human genome via CRISPR/Cas9. But the technology offers hope of changing so much more than our own genes.

Immense Potential for Improving the Human Condition

Those who cloned Dolly were interested in developing sheep that could produce desired proteins in their milk for beneficial use for human welfare. Like those who cloned Dolly, many scientists intend their applications of CRISPR/Cas9 technology to contribute to human good and growth. A desire to benefit human welfare motivates many individuals who are trying to produce yeast that makes biofuels; create mosquitoes that are unable to spread malaria, dengue fever, or Zika virus; improve food and crop production (e.g., resistance to browning); create pigs that could end the wait list for human organ transplants; and develop bacteria that could rapidly break down polymer plastics in landfills or clear other environmental contaminants. These are just a few life-changing applications, but the potential applications are nearly limitless.

Humanity’s Impaired Knowledge

With such a promise of new-and-improved organisms, why is there any concern over a world shaped by new technology and an advancing human species? For one reason, our hubris may be our downfall.

Our hubris may be our downfall. . . . There is far more about reality than any one person knows and far more than we humans collectively know. 

Philosopher John Pollock, who is well known in the artificial intelligence field, puts it this way: “We must be able to make informed choices in a climate of prevailing ignorance.” This statement is at the heart of defeasible reasoning, foundational to the development of artificial intelligence—it is how we as humans reason continually. Because there is far more about reality than any one person knows and far more than we humans collectively know, much of what we do is rarely, if ever, done with comprehensive knowledge.

When altering the genomes of entire organisms and releasing them into the environment to effect population-wide change, such impaired knowledge of ecological networks, potential species-to-species gene transfers, and the fidelity of our targeted changes makes each of these an area of deep concern.

The tool, when wielded by sensible and careful scientists, may be safe, but without regulations, such a widespread technology can be used by others with relative ease and perhaps at great cost to society.

Our Call to Stewardship and Humility

We are called to reflect God to the world, not to be gods of the world. It may seem a slight shift in emphasis between those two things, but the difference is critical. In recognizing ourselves as creatures who reflect the image of God, we acknowledge our finite knowledge and humble, if not privileged, estate. We recognize, too, our moral responsibilities to God, one another, and creation.

Technological advances are always morally neutral. It is the user of the technology that makes moral choices about how to wield it. This is where Christ-followers need to be engaged in making sure that human welfare and good stewardship of creation are paramount in the way we use the genome-editing power of CRISPR/Cas9.

We must be very careful. We must be morally good and just. We must continue learning, demonstrating humility, inviting dialogue, and patiently pursuing well-thought-out approaches and solutions. We cannot race ahead to gain fame or fortune at the risk of ecological mishaps. We must ask difficult questions and move past selfish interests.

What We Value Is What We Ultimately Pursue

Surely such power is not safe in the hands of some, and we should require temperance in its use on a national and international scale. As the spread of mosquitoes from Africa to the Americas or the introduction of new species into naïve ecological niches has shown,3 our world is an immense but common garden. If we are to become a new species of stewards, I pray we grow more in wisdom than in hubris.

As Christians and stewards, we must realize that a mutual accountability for our actions is both a good and healthy position that allows us to live in unity. As such, we should support regulation of such powerful technology and weigh in to public discourse about its moral and safe applications.

Is this the world you want? You’re making it every day you’re alive. Is this the world you want? . . . You change the world. . . . You change my world. . . . If you change the world for you, you change it for me. . . . Is this the world you want?

–Switchfoot, “The World You Want”

  1. Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, Homo Evolutis: Please Meet the Next Human Species (New York: TED Books, 2011).
  2. Dolly was put down in 2003 due to progressive lung disease at age 6.5 years. She was cloned from a 6-year-old ewe, and this breed of sheep (Finnish Dorset) typically lives 11–12 years.
  3. For example, there was the intentional introduction of Euglandina rosea (the rosy wolfsnail) to Bermuda in 1958 (as mentioned in Stephen J. Gould’s Eight Little Piggies), the accidental introduction of lionfish into the Atlantic and Caribbean waters in the 1990s, and the introduction of kudzu into the United States in 1876.