One of the biggest intersections of faith and science comes when we talk about genetics. Genetics involves the study of DNA, and DNA is the molecule that forms the basis of life as we know it. When scientists are messing with DNA, it gets people’s attention. They add and delete and manipulate to “create” better organisms and products.
Is that using scientific knowledge to benefit mankind or just playing God?
When a plant or animal has its DNA manipulated, we call it genetic modification. A genetically modified organism (GMO) has been enhanced in some way to fight disease, to increase nutrients, to grow faster, or to live longer. Many people do not want GMOs to be in the marketplace. They feel like it’s some kind of “Frankenfruit” if it had its genes manipulated. Maybe the genes will transfer from our hamburger into us. Or somehow we will produce some type of “killer tomatoes” and they will attack us (…cue cultic B movie spoof from the ‘80s).
Since we really don’t understand DNA, it becomes mysterious (or terrifying) to have it altered.
Maybe it’s just when scientists are manipulating the DNA it becomes mysterious. You see, farmers have been manipulating DNA for centuries. We call it selective breeding. We’ve altered our crops, our livestock and our pets using “natural” genetic modification. We get more disease resistance, more nutrients, faster growth, more domestic behavior, increased cuteness…but have we made better products or just swapped one set of problems for another?
Well, last year scientists made one of the biggest breakthroughs with DNA research. They successfully completed a somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) with human DNA. With SCNT the DNA is removed from an egg cell and replaced with DNA from a skin cell. The resulting cell is tricked into growing as an embryo.
In “therapeutic cloning”, the embryo is harvested early to collect the stem cells which theoretically can become any tissue type for organ transplant or disease treatment. In “reproductive cloning” the embryo is implanted into a surrogate mother and allowed to develop into a complete animal.
A type of SCNT was used 17 years ago to clone the infamous sheep Dolly, the first mammal cloned by this method. Other embryo cell methods had worked before then, but this was the first to use skin cells. Since then they have cloned probably 18-20 different four legged mammals with this procedure.
It turns out to be very difficult to make a clone. You only get a few good embryos from hundreds of attempts. And most cloned animals have health problems that shorten their life span. Dolly died at only half the age of normal sheep.
The human clone was a therapeutic clone. The technique was perfected with monkey eggs. More than a thousand monkey eggs were used before moving to humans. You see monkeys have not been reproductively cloned using SCNT. There is something different about monkey eggs verses other mammal eggs. It is much more difficult if not impossible to make a reproductive clone with monkeys and, in that respect, humans.
So the issue is not about making a cloned human baby, although that may be somewhere down the road, it is about the ethics of using embryo derived cells for research. Has the science jumped ahead of our ethics?
- Is a therapeutically cloned embryo still an embryo?
- Does the situation change if the embryo could never become a baby?
- Is there an ethical problem with using human eggs to make the clone?
- Should we pay for the eggs to do this type of research?
- Do we impose religious ethics on this type of research and if so, do we use Western religion or Eastern religion?
These and other questions will be asked as our ethics tries to keep up with the scientific techniques.