It started as an attempt to make a better yogurt. It became one of the most controversial, ethically mind-boggling and remarkable scientific breakthroughs in recent history, one with serious implications for Christians who believe in the sanctity of life—down to the embryonic level.
The discovery is called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). CRISPR are repeating DNA strands found in bacteria that function like an immune system: They absorb the genetic coding of harmful viruses and inhibit these harmful codes from spreading. Scientists quickly realized that their meager attempt to lengthen yogurt’s “sell-by” date had a more profound possibility for life as we know it: The elimination of over 10,000 harmful genetic mutations from the human race.
By harnessing CRISPR and strategically unleashing it in human cells, scientists can inhibit the spread of genetic hereditary diseases by effectively rewriting the DNA strands carrying the mutation. In the past week, U.S. teams at Oregon Health and Science University and the Salk Institute along with the Institute for Basic Science in South Korea announced they had removed the DNA mutation that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disorder affecting one in every 500 people that can cause the heart to suddenly stop beating. Anyone carrying the gene has a 50-50 chance of passing it to their children.
Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a key member of the research team, recently told the BBC this could, in time, eliminate the disorder from society altogether.
“Every generation on would carry this repair because we’ve removed the disease-causing gene variant from that family’s lineage,” Mitalipov said. “By using this technique, it’s possible to reduce the burden of this heritable disease on the family and eventually the human population.”
The team’s experiment successfully used CRISPR on the embryo’s DNA to “cut and splice” out the harmful DNA, much like editors used to cut and splice film. The team allowed the embryos to advance for five days before terminating them. And for those who believe life begins at conception, this is the first of many thorny ethical problems with the new technology.
The purpose of the experiment is to eliminate harmful genetic traits being passed on to children. The only way to determine that is by fertilizing an egg with a CRISPR-tested sperm, an act that many Christians believe creates a human life. Scientists speculate this technology could be used to eliminate cystic fibrosis, breast cancer and literally thousands of other genetic mutations from being passed on, but for many Christians the process of getting to this point is an ethical dealbreaker.
There are universal concerns about this technology being abused to create “designer babies.” CRISPR could be used for all sorts of genetic specifications, eliminating “undesirable” traits. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health and BioLogos founder, released a statement in which he described the research and outlined the risks:
“The concept of altering the human germline in embryos…has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain.”
For the moment the “designer baby” scenario remains far off. During the recent experiment, scientists expected a newly-created strand of DNA coding to be inserted into the embryo. Instead, CRISPR destroyed the genetic mutation coding, keeping it from being replicated without actually rewriting any of the embryo’s coding. To put it simply, currently technology could potentially stop harmful traits from being passed on but can’t add desirable traits.
For Christians, the entire conversation is thorny ground. On one hand, upholding the sanctity of life means celebrating the reduction of babies born with debilitating or painful genetic traits. On the other hand, both the methodology of the research and the chillingly plausible developments of this technology in the future are cause for immense concern.
For those responsible for discipling their church communities, navigating the theological waters of this technology is going to be complex.