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God’s Providence, Man’s Dominion, and Synthetic Biology

Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy. (Acts 14:17)

Is the fictional future of Huxley’s Brave New World becoming a reality? At times it seems that way as scientists rapidly develop the capability to manipulate, modify, and even create life in a laboratory setting. Many people find the prospects of this type of a future terrifying. Because of these fears, Christians often summarily condemn advances in biotechnology.

Yet, as two recent scientific reports illustrate, emerging biotechnologies promise very real benefits.1 In one study a team of over fifty collaborators developed an efficient, commercially feasible route to make the antimalarial compound, artemisinin. The group employed the techniques of synthetic biology to engineer Baker’s yeast to make artemisinic acid and then identified a chemical process to generate artemisinin. The World Health Organization recommends the use of artemisinin to combat the 700,000 deaths caused by the 200 million cases of malaria that arise each year. Artemisinin comes from the sweet wormwood plant. But plant yields are low, demand is high, and worldwide supplies of the drug are unstable. The use of Baker’s yeast to make artemisinin, however, should go a long way toward making up for the shortfall in supply.

Another report summarizes a number of studies in which researchers have engineered plants, targeting transport proteins in the membranes of plant cells as a way to improve crop yields. Modifying membrane transporters paves the way for plants to grow in toxic soils with high acidity and high salinity. And, given that over 2 billion people suffer from zinc and iron deficiencies, membrane transporters also can be used to pump iron and zinc into plant cells, increasing the nutritional value of crops.

Whether we like it or not, the research community continues to make distinguishable strides in synthetic biology.

Ethical and theological questions surrounding advances in biotechnology along with the potential risks and rewards make it mandatory for Christians to thoughtfully wrestle through the issues. Ideally, Scripture should inform these deliberations. A pressing need exists for a theological framework to guide Christian responses to emerging biotechnology.2

Perhaps the most relevant Scriptural passage toward this end is Genesis 1:26–31. This passage teaches that human beings were made in God’s image. Because we are image-bearers, God grants us authority (dominion) over the Earth. This gift comes with responsibility. God commands humans to multiply and fill the Earth. He also instructs us to subdue the Earth and tame the wild creation. Finally, God commands us to care for the planet so that all life may benefit. Because God endowed us with His image, humans are able to serve as His viceroys among creation.

Scriptural passages (such as Job 5:10, Psalm 65:9–10, Psalm 104:14, and Acts 14:17) teach that God provides for all creation, including humans, through the processes and laws of nature. It’s called providence. As an extension of this idea, the more humans learn about nature, the more resources become available to use for our benefit. Such understanding further displays God’s providence.

In my opinion much of the work in biotechnology, like the attempts to modify existing life-forms, can be viewed as human beings exerting legitimate dominion over the creation. Conceptually, modifying organisms is no different than domesticating plants and animals. Throughout history, humans have used selective breeding practices to create new plant and animal species—nonnatural, “artificial” organisms with desirable properties that we have exploited for our benefit.

Evidently, the Creator has no problem with farming and animal husbandry. Instead of condemning Cain and Abel for cultivating “fruit from the soil” and raising flocks, the Lord implicitly endorsed their activities and even expected a first-fruits offering from both brothers (Genesis 4:2–5).

In biotechnology, sophisticated methods of genetic and biochemical engineering replace the cumbersome and crude practices associated with domestication. Still, the outcome (or potential outcome) is the same: human-engineered life-forms with benefit for humanity. The creation of artificial life will be a boon for humanity in many ways. Artificial life-forms will have industrial, agricultural, and biomedical applications that, at this juncture, seem limitless and can rightly be seen as an aspect of God’s providence.

  1. Julian I. Schroeder et al., “Using Membrane Transporters to Improve Crops for Sustainable Food Production,” Nature 497 (May 2, 2013): 60–66; C. J. Paddon et al., “High-Level Semi-Synthetic Production of the Potent Antimalarial Artemisinin,” Nature 496 (April 25, 2013): 528–32.
  2. The following links to a two-part series entitled “A Theology for Synthetic Biology,” provide a more-detailed discussion on how a theological framework for biotechnology might look:
    “A Theology for Synthetic Biology,” Part 1 (of 2)
    “A Theology for Synthetic Biology,” Part 2 (of 2)