A Theology for Synthetic Biology, Part 1 (of 2)

A Theology for Synthetic Biology, Part 1 (of 2)

It’s just a matter of time before synthetic biologists create artificial life in the lab.

This endeavor causes many Christians concern and raises a number of important philosophical and theological questions. It has become apparent to me that there is a need for a theology for synthetic biology. Part 1 of this series provides an introduction to synthetic biology and a brief status report about its progress, and also addresses key philosophical concerns. Part 2 proposes a theology for synthetic biology derived from Genesis 1:26–31 and applies it to the most important questions raised by this emerging discipline.

Should humans play God?

This question has become more poignant in the last few years as biochemists, molecular biologists, and origin-of-life researchers make significant strides in their quest to create life in the lab. Attempts to produce artificial life fall under the purview of a new discipline called synthetic biology, a fusion of engineering and the life sciences.

One of synthetic biology’s goals is the design and manufacture of nonnatural life-forms—man-made constructs—unlike anything found in nature. Typically, those interested in creating these artificial organisms focus on engineering novel microbes (bacteria, yeast, etc.) or producing protocells, chemical supersystems that assume many, if not all, of the properties of life.

Among other benefits, these man-made life-forms could potentially provide huge technological advantages. Researchers envision synthetic microbes and protocells as bioreactors that could use inexpensive raw materials and solar energy to generate extremely valuable materials, like biomedicines, vaccines, biofuels, bioplastics, etc. These novel life-forms could also be used to clean up contaminants from the environment and find use in agricultural applications.

Despite such exciting possibilities, the creation of artificial life raises questions, some of a practical nature and others of a more philosophical and theological orientation. 

  • Will the creation of synthetic life-forms eliminate the need for a Creator? Will synthetic biology make it all the more reasonable to think that life emerged via chemical evolution?
  • Is this type of work safe? If artificial cells “leak” from the lab will they cause a disaster of “biblical” proportions?
  • Is it ethical to create artificial life?
  • Are researchers “playing God”?

I find that many Christians summarily condemn this type of research without thoughtful deliberation. Others simply ignore it, as if by not paying attention to the work, it will “go away.” They bank on the notion that scientists won’t really be able to accomplish their goals. But, as I discuss in my book Creating Life in the Lab, it is just a matter of time before scientists achieve success. In fact, I anticipate that in the next decade researchers will succeed in creating a variety of forms of artificial life, using a number of different approaches.

Whether we like it or not, scientists will create life in the lab. Christians need to wrestle with the questions posed by this endeavor and be a part of the process. Most importantly, we need to develop a framework to help us think through these issues—we need a theology for synthetic biology. 

Before I propose such a theology, I would like to address several questions that people typically ask about synthetic biology. My responses serve as an introduction to this new discipline and provide a status report of progress to date.

Can scientists really create life in the lab?

This question comes up whenever I talk about advances in synthetic biology. Many Christians and non-Christians, alike, are skeptical about scientists’ ability to create even the simplest life. In part, this skepticism is fueled by the increasing recognition that even in its most minimal form, life displays astounding complexity.1 Many wonder how scientists could ever replicate such intricacy and elegance?

This is not an unreasonable question. But the fact remains that scientists understand enough about how life’s structure and basic level functions to parlay that insight into genuine advances in synthetic biology.

What have synthetic biologists actually accomplished?

When scientists try to create life in the lab, they employ one of two approaches: the top-down or bottom-up. The top-down strategy involves re-engineering existing microbes (sometimes in radical ways) to generate artificial life. The bottom-up approach focuses on combining relatively simple chemicals into increasingly complex super-chemical systems that assume the properties common to life on Earth.

To date, the greatest progress toward creating artificial life is due to the top-down approach. However, researchers working with the bottom-up method have also made significant advances.2 In the next decade, I believe researchers employing both approaches will have success in making artificial cells and life-like protocells, respectively.

Does the creation of life in the lab eliminate the need for a Creator?

Many Christians view the attempt to create life in the lab as a thoroughly atheistic endeavor. This is because many synthetic biologists and origin-of-life researchers assert that if we can make life in the lab, it will mean life is not special. According to this view, life is merely a physicochemical system. Therefore, we can, in principle, replicate this chemistry and physics in the lab. If this is the case, then a Creator is not needed to explain life’s genesis. Without the need for a Creator, it makes it all the more likely that life emerged on early Earth (or elsewhere) via chemical evolutionary processes. 

However, as I demonstrate in Creating Life in the Lab, work in synthetic biology, whether from the bottom-up or top-down, actually leads to the opposite conclusion.

Whether it’s on early Earth or in the lab, life cannot come from non-life or be significantly transformed from one form into another without the direct involvement of intelligent agency. The generation of artificial cells and protocells requires the work of highly trained scientists who rely on several hundred years of scientific advance. In the process, these researchers develop sophisticated strategies and elaborate protocols. These steps are executed carefully in the laboratory, in many instances, with highly sophisticated laboratory instrumentation. In other words, artificial life is intelligently designed.3

The Christian faith has nothing to fear from advances in synthetic biology. God is more necessary than ever before in order to explain the origin of life. But should human beings engage in the creation of artificial life at all? Is it safe? If it is safe, is this an activity that Christians should support? Should we play God? 

In part 2, I will develop a theology for synthetic biology to help make sense of these concerns.

  1. See these articles for more details on life’s complexity:  “Biochemists Ask, ‘How Low Can Life Go?’”, “More Complex than Imagined, Part 1 (of 2),” and “More Complex than Imagined, Part 2 (of 2).” 
  2. Here are two articles that give a good sense of the progress in the quest to make artificial cells: “The Celebrity of Artificial Life” and “Artificial Life: Ready or Not Here It Comes.”
  3. See note 2 for articles in support of this conclusion.