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Imago Dei and the Ethics of Gene Modification

To boldly go where no one has gone before—or not? That is the question when considering whether we should dabble in genetic engineering.

I have been a Trekkie since the early ’70s when I watched Star Trek alone in my parents’ bedroom—since no one else in my family was interested. (My dad believed watching a show filled with bizarre alien characters and space travel was a waste of time.) Years later, The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss fueled my wonder over how many of the technologies and gadgets in Star Trek were possible and how many were just the imaginings of writers who neglected the laws of physics. Since then, I have been periodically amazed at how Star Trek’s writers projected future realities that were once thought implausible.

Genetic Engineering Creates an Unnatural Selection

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Unnatural Selection,” Captain Picard, Dr. Pulaski, and the Enterprise crew discover a supply ship (USS Lantree) that had recently visited the Darwin Genetic Research Station on Gagarin IV, and the entire Lantree crew was dead and extremely aged.1 In response to their disconcerting discovery, Captain Picard utters with trepidation and awe, “My God.”

Upon initial assessment, Dr. Pulaski anxiously informs the bridge crew, “They died of natural causes.” Picard’s response foreshadows the outcome: “Natural causes? What in nature could cause that?” Shortly after this, Picard confesses that the thought of a link between the Lantree crew’s deaths and the research station fills him with “profound apprehension.”

As the story unfolds, we learn that children have been genetically designed to have superior physiologies and mental capacities, including advanced immune systems designed to resist disease and aggressively attack potential pathogens from a distance by releasing antibodies into the atmosphere. (It is interesting to note that this episode aired 20 years before the CRISPR/Cas9 system was even discovered.) Unfortunately, the children’s genetic enhancement had an unforeseen, tragic outcome, resulting in a type of humanoid-autoimmunity. Their antibodies—generated to protect them from a relatively harmless flu virus—attacked humanoid DNA in otherwise healthy, unmodified humans, accelerating their aging process. The antibody became a dangerous, infectious pathogen passing easily from one person to another. The children’s superior immunity resulted in Dr. Pulaski’s summary that the genetic design of human beings had led to a new species of humans that is lethal to its predecessors.

Maybe my dad was right—this all sounds pretty far-fetched!

But not anymore—at least not on one level. In December 2015, an international panel of scientists met to discuss the future of gene-editing of human cells, including somatic cells, germ (reproductive) cells, and stem cells.

Since 2012, a bacterial antiviral system called CRISPR/Cas9 has been revolutionizing gene-editing (changing the DNA sequence of targeted genes to correct or introduce new DNA sequences), making it more easily accessible, affordable, and widespread than previous techniques. Most CRISPR/Cas9 editing is being done in nonhuman organisms, but the potential of modifying human somatic cells to treat human diseases is the goal of many experiments.

The Complications of Editing the Human Genome

Three recent studies in Science demonstrate the potential for treating diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) in a mouse model using CRISPR/Cas9 systems.2 Such modifications are not so straightforward. Gene-editing has proven inefficient, and delivery of the gene-editing mechanism may not hit enough cells to achieve the desired outcome or cure. Unmodified CRISPR/Cas9s also have a high off-target hit rate, which means the target genome is mutated in more places than intended. Many scientists are finding clever solutions to reduce these problems, but these are serious technical hurdles to clear before attempting any kind of gene-editing treatment in humans suffering from genetic diseases like DMD.

As beings made in the image of God, we have been given rational minds, imaginations, curiosity, a desire to create, and a mandate to care for creation. We are even given dominion over creation, which allows us to approach nature through scientific experimentation. As a scientist who studies the vast resources of God’s creation, I am amazed by the wonders and rich complexity of the microbial world. CRISPR/Cas9 and other microbial systems providentially provide us with tools to mitigate human disease and suffering and may even herald the cure for many genetic diseases.

However, the way we exercise dominion makes a great difference in how we care for creation and for one another. (For example, we can use nuclear fission for destructive warheads or clean energy.) CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing opens the door to gene-editing in human germ cells. If modified germ cells or embryos were used to establish a pregnancy, the result would be the birth of a genetically modified human being. Any modifications would then be passed on to subsequent generations, affecting the human gene pool and eventually, possibly all of future humanity.

Is It Ever Ethical to “Modify” Humans Made in God’s Image?

It’s important to remember that we are given dominion over creation, not over other human beings. Only God has dominion over us. Problems arise when we glorify our dominion over creation rather than giving glory to the Creator. In other words, we falter for lack of humility.

The Judeo-Christian perspective espouses human dignity because humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). It is difficult to establish the grounds for human dignity or uniqueness apart from a Creator who imparts his image and gives us purpose. The Judeo-Christian voice thus must be strong in public dialogue, helping to restrain and shape the future of gene-editing to preserve the dignity of humanity.

Significant technical challenges remain before CRISPR/Cas9 can be used to treat diseases in humans. The oversight committee for the International Summit on Human Gene Editing released their summary statement on gene-editing in research and clinical applications. In light of how little is still known or well-understood of the human genome (see my previous article), greater caution than called for in this summary statement can be argued, echoing others’ calls for a moratorium on human germ cell manipulation due to safety and ethical issues.

Returning to Star Trek, Dr. Pulaski suggests that, despite the risks, the crew should start experimenting. Picard replies that he wants proof of safety before he exposes his crew.

Unfortunately, if we don’t know the risks hidden in unexplored places in the complexity of the human genome, we can’t have positive proof of safety.

It may sound far-fetched, but Star Trek’s episode “Unnatural Selection” is not so far off from scientific possibility. In the midst of this, we should be praying for godly wisdom rather than relying solely on the cry to go boldly where no one has gone before.

  1. John Mason and Mike Gray, “Unnatural Selection,” Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 2, episode 7, directed by Paul Lynch, aired January 30, 1989 (Hollywood: Paramount, 2002), DVD.
  2. Chengzu Long et al., “Postnatal Genome Editing Partially Restores Dystrophin Expression in a Mouse Model of Muscular Dystrophy,” Science 351 (January 2016): 400–3, doi:10.1126/science.aad5725; Christopher E. Nelson et al., “In Vivo Genome Editing Improves Muscle Function in a Mouse Model of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy,” Science 351 (January 2016): 403–7, doi:10.1126/science.aad5143; Mohammadsharif Tabebordbar et al., “In Vivo Gene Editing in Dystrophic Mouse Muscle and Muscle Stem Cells,” Science 351 (January 2016): 407–11, doi:10.1126/science.aad5177.