V&V Q&A — The Century of Biology and its Ethical Challenges

Editor’s note: Both promising and ethically challenging, a new type of human genome project by the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology recently made big news in the journal Science and the Washington Post. The Center for Vision & Values spoke with Grove City College biology professor Dr. Jan Dudt about “Human Genome Project—Write.”

V&V: Dr. Dudt, what is “Human Genome Project—Write,” and how is it different than the Human Genome Project (“Human Genome Project—Read”) that was launched 25 years ago?

Dudt: The “Human Genome Project—Read,” simply referred to as the “Human Genome Project,” started in the early 1990s and completed in the early 2000s, set out to determine the nucleotide base pair sequence of the human genome, our DNA. This paved the way to determine the code for every gene associated with being a human. Although the entire sequence of the human genetic code (the genome) was determined and recorded, or “read,” there is much yet to discover about the nucleotides that make up DNA molecules. Many organisms have been, and are being, DNA sequenced, from bacteria, to chestnut trees, to chimps. Even some fossilized extinct organisms such as the Neanderthal have been sequenced.

Once the DNA code had been read, interest grew in developing technology to put DNA sequences together from scratch, or “write” DNA codes. The next step in technology, the Human Genome Project—Write, is not new even as reading DNA codes prior to the Human Genome Project was not new. The Human Genome Project—Read discovered how to do it more quickly and cheaply. Likewise, the desire now is to develop technology for writing DNA sequences quickly and cheaply. Anticipating a price tag of $3 billion, the same as Human Genome Project—Read, researchers hope to raise $100 million for the project this year.

V&V: What are some of the positive possibilities of HGP—Write?

Dudt: Writing DNA code could lead to specialized cell lines for research that are resistant to lab-born infections and are therefore more productive research subjects. They would also be designed for specialized research purposes. Currently, many cultured human cell lines are used in many kinds of research from pharmaceutical testing to cancer research. With Human Genome technology, specific cell lines could be developed from their own synthetically designed DNA codes that would have superior research potential to human cells grown in incubators tailored specifically for the needs of the research project.

Proponents of the Human Genome Project—Write also envision writing DNA codes to produce entire human organs, ending the organ transplant shortage. Also, entire synthetic organisms are in view. Organisms not seen in nature. They would have novel applications, limited only by the human imagination to create them, such as new foods, organisms that could produce new pharmaceutical products and treatments, and new organisms engineered for specific functions, which is essentially what chemical science has done in producing plastics from organic chemicals not found in nature.

V&V: Who is Francis Collins and why is he concerned about HGP—Write?

Dudt: Dr. Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is the former head of the Human Genome Project. He is well known for managing the completion of the federal project ahead of schedule and under budget. In 2009, he was nominated to be the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by President Obama. He continues to serve in that post. In addition, Dr. Collins is a committed Christian who has earned the respect of the scientific community. Science magazine did a profile of him during his days as a head of the Human Genome Project and commented that he was such a good scientist you could not tell he was a Christian, except for his ethical concerns. Not everyone has gotten him right or appreciated him.  Sam Harris in a New York Times op-ed in 2009 proclaimed him unfit for the NIH directorship due to his religious commitments.

It is these commitments that inform his concerns for the outcomes of HGP-Write. The NIH could help fund such a project but Collins has ethical concerns about the development of synthetic organisms and the potential for manipulating human genetics. Simply writing genes and inserting them into existing organisms would be much more achievable and potentially advantageous. However, the need for ethics discussions for that more modest level of the project are far outpaced by the present technology. This is potentially a dangerous situation. We must not assume that because some Christians or right-thinking ethicists are aware of potential developments that those matters are now fully understood in a way that is consistent with a Biblical perspective of dominion and stewardship. It is easy for us to be influenced by the hope of technology without adequately considering our call to biblically steward God’s creation. Ethically, it is hard for Christians to agree on the uses and possibilities of new biotechnologies. For example, Francis Collins is much more open to using extra cryo-stored human embryos from in vitro fertilization for research purposes than I am. Yet Collins is well known for his desire to be a consistent Christian who does science. How the different perspectives of Christians will play out as new biotechnologies are developed is, unfortunately, anyone’s guess. The ethical outcomes for such issues within the broader culture are less certain.

V&V:  What is the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology and who will hold it ethically accountable?

Dudt: The Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology is the non-profit organization that is kicking off this project. They want to manage the initial planning and coordination of the multi-institutional, international, interdisciplinary research teams that would work collaboratively toward the goals of the project. They are seeking funding from public and private sources. The organizers held invitation-only meetings in October 2015 and in May 2016 to spell out their goals and aspirations. They announced their intensions this month in Science. The story has been picked up by a number of news outlets. The Center indicates on its web site that it desires to consider the ethical implications of the project and that 37 percent of those in attendance at the May 10th meeting were associated with the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) community.

ELSI is a program that was set up in 1990 as an integral part of the Human Genome Project. Its goal is to foster basic and applied research on the ethical, legal and social implications of genetic and genomic research for individuals, families and communities. It is a government program not an independent watch group. This is problematic. An internal ethics board of this nature could be helpful or it could become little more than a rubber stamp for the project without much real ethical oversight. Different presidential administrations will see ethical restraints differently. For example, George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address said, “Human life is a gift from our Creator—and that gift should never be discarded, devalued, or put up for sale.” President Obama in his executive order of March 9, 2009 that lifted the ban on federally funded human embryonic stem cell research remarked, “I’m going to let scientists do science. I’m going to remove politics, religion, and ideology from that.”

These two articulations on ethics could not be further apart. Unfortunately, there are many in the scientific community, and I suspect many associated with HGP-Write, who are more inclined to the latter perspective. The question then is who will hold the ELSI accountable.

V&V: How and why should people who hold to a view of Christian ethics respond to the project?

Dudt: It has been said that the 21st century is the century of biology. It is certainly true in a way never before seen in human history. New developments, especially in genetics, are creating situations that confront the very idea of what it means to be human. Many people realize this. The scientific community, however, is a mixed bag of people who see humanity very differently. The range extends from those that have no interest in seeing humans as image bearers of God to those who do. Unfortunately, the clear Christian voice is a distinct minority. Yet, Christians are called to be salt and light in the world. The better our understanding of a true Biblical perspective of what it means to be human, the better our position to positively influence challenging biotech developments. Biblically, human identity is only part biology. We are of the dust. Or, in modern parlance, we are of the DNA.

We also have a foot in the spiritual world in a way that no other creature does. We can relate directly to God himself. Any technology that alters our identity as humans must be viewed with great suspicion. We are assigned the highest rank in creation (Genesis 1 and 2, Psalm 8). Degrading that status is not God’s plan. We are created a little lower than angels and our bodies are considered the temple of God. These new technologies should be assessed in terms of this identity. Under the call of stewardship and dominion, we need to ask and answer two primary questions: 1) Do these technologies enhance our role as caretakers of God’s world? 2) Do these technologies actually erode our status of dominion while raising a new genetic Tower of Babel?  To answer these questions appropriately we need to know and revere the authority of Scripture and the science behind the unfolding technology. Knee-jerk reactions will not help.

A thoughtful response, carefully crafted and winsomely presented will have the best chance of influencing the direction of the research and its findings. As always, we need to be wise and gentle.

About Jan F. Dudt

Dr. Jan Dudt is a professor of biology at Grove City College and fellow for medical ethics with the Institute for Faith & Freedom. He teaches as part of college’s required core course Studies in Science, Faith and Technology wherein students, among other things, study all the major origins theories and are asked to measure them in the light of biblical authority.

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