A Theology for Synthetic Biology
Fazale (Fuz) Rana January 16th, 2012
This question has become more poignant in the last few years as biochemists, molecular biologists, and origin-of-life researchers make significant strides in their quest to create life in the lab. Attempts to produce artificial life fall under the purview of a new discipline called synthetic biology, a fusion of engineering and the life sciences.
One of synthetic biology’s goals is the design and manufacture of nonnatural life-forms—man-made constructs—unlike anything found in nature. Typically, those interested in creating these artificial organisms focus on engineering novel microbes (bacteria, yeast, etc.) or producing protocells, chemical supersystems that assume many, if not all, of the properties of life.
Among other benefits, these man-made life-forms could potentially provide huge technological advantages. Researchers envision synthetic microbes and protocells as bioreactors that could use inexpensive raw materials and solar energy to generate extremely valuable materials, like biomedicines, vaccines, biofuels, bioplastics, etc. These novel life-forms could also be used to clean up contaminants from the environment and find use in agricultural applications.
Despite such exciting possibilities, the creation of artificial life raises questions, some of a practical nature and others of a more philosophical and theological orientation.
- Will the creation of synthetic life-forms eliminate the need for a Creator? Will synthetic biology make it all the more reasonable to think that life emerged via chemical evolution?
- Is this type of work safe? If artificial cells “leak” from the lab will they cause a disaster of “biblical” proportions?
- Is it ethical to create artificial life?
- Are researchers “playing God”?
I find that many Christians summarily condemn this type of research without thoughtful deliberation. Others simply ignore it, as if by not paying attention to the work, it will “go away.” They bank on the notion that scientists won’t really be able to accomplish their goals. But, as I discuss in my book Creating Life in the Lab, it is just a matter of time before scientists achieve success. In fact, I anticipate that in the next decade researchers will succeed in creating a variety of forms of artificial life, using a number of different approaches.
Whether we like it or not, scientists will create life in the lab. Christians need to wrestle with the questions posed by this endeavor and be a part of the process. Most importantly, we need to develop a framework to help us think through these issues—we need a theology for synthetic biology.
Before I propose such a theology, I would like to address several questions that people typically ask about synthetic biology. My responses serve as an introduction to this new discipline and provide a status report of progress to date.
Can scientists really create life in the lab?
This question comes up whenever I talk about advances in synthetic biology. Many Christians and non-Christians, alike, are skeptical about scientists’ ability to create even the simplest life. In part, this skepticism is fueled by the increasing recognition that even in its most minimal form, life displays astounding complexity.1 Many wonder how scientists could ever replicate such intricacy and elegance?
This is not an unreasonable question. But the fact remains that scientists understand enough about how life’s structure and basic level functions to parlay that insight into genuine advances in synthetic biology.
What have synthetic biologists actually accomplished?
When scientists try to create life in the lab, they employ one of two approaches: the top-down or bottom-up. The top-down strategy involves re-engineering existing microbes (sometimes in radical ways) to generate artificial life. The bottom-up approach focuses on combining relatively simple chemicals into increasingly complex super-chemical systems that assume the properties common to life on Earth.
To date, the greatest progress toward creating artificial life is due to the top-down approach. However, researchers working with the bottom-up method have also made significant advances.2 In the next decade, I believe researchers employing both approaches will have success in making artificial cells and life-like protocells, respectively.
Does the creation of life in the lab eliminate the need for a Creator?
Many Christians view the attempt to create life in the lab as a thoroughly atheistic endeavor. This is because many synthetic biologists and origin-of-life researchers assert that if we can make life in the lab, it will mean life is not special. According to this view, life is merely a physicochemical system. Therefore, we can, in principle, replicate this chemistry and physics in the lab. If this is the case, then a Creator is not needed to explain life’s genesis. Without the need for a Creator, it makes it all the more likely that life emerged on early Earth (or elsewhere) via chemical evolutionary processes.
However, as I demonstrate in Creating Life in the Lab, work in synthetic biology, whether from the bottom-up or top-down, actually leads to the opposite conclusion.
Whether it’s on early Earth or in the lab, life cannot come from non-life or be significantly transformed from one form into another without the direct involvement of intelligent agency. The generation of artificial cells and protocells requires the work of highly trained scientists who rely on several hundred years of scientific advance. In the process, these researchers develop sophisticated strategies and elaborate protocols. These steps are executed carefully in the laboratory, in many instances, with highly sophisticated laboratory instrumentation. In other words, artificial life is intelligently designed.3
The Christian faith has nothing to fear from advances in synthetic biology. God is more necessary than ever before in order to explain the origin of life. But should human beings engage in the creation of artificial life at all? Is it safe? If it is safe, is this an activity that Christians should support? Should we play God?
The scriptural basis for a theology of synthetic biology
I maintain that Genesis 1:26–31 is the most relevant biblical text for a theology of synthetic biology. This familiar passage teaches, first and foremost, that human beings were made in God’s image. The Bible never defines what the image of God entails, but it is clear from Genesis 1 (as well as Genesis 2:19–20 and Psalm 8) that this quality distinguishes humans from the animals.
Because we are image-bearers, God granted us authority (dominion) over the Earth. This gift comes with responsibility. God commanded humans to multiply and fill the Earth so His image covers the entire surface of the planet. He also instructs us to subdue the Earth and tame the wild creation (at the same time, we receive provision from the creation under our control). Finally, God commands us to care for the planet so that all life may benefit. All of these tasks bring glory to the Creator. Because God endowed us with His image, we are able to serve as His viceroys among creation.
Exerting dominion over creation—in the lab
In my view, the attempts to create artificial life can be seen as human beings exerting legitimate dominion over the creation. Conceptually, creating artificial cells and protocells 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 offerings from both brothers (Genesis 4:2–5).
With synthetic biology, 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.
Synthetic biology’s benefits
The creation of artificial life will be a boon for humanity in many ways. In the life sciences, it will help shed light onto life’s fundamental structures and processes and will also provide insight into the very nature of life itself. Synthetic biology will even help scientists define what life is. With this insight, life’s elegant design will become increasingly evident and highlight the Creator’s majesty and glory.
The ability to create novel, nonnatural life-forms from scratch and redesign and re-engineer existing microbes could also represent a revolution in technology. Artificial life-forms will have industrial applications and uses in agriculture and biomedicine that, at this juncture, seem limitless. From a Christian perspective, there is every reason to desire these types of technological advances. It is possible that artificial microbes could produce renewable sources of clean energy. Such advancements would help us to carry out the mandate to care for creation.
Furthermore, the possibility of biomedical advances via artificial life provides the means to “love our neighbors as ourselves” by continuing to strive for better treatments for disease and injuries. Artificial microbes will play a role in finding new treatments and possible cures for sicknesses that, as of now, can’t be effectively treated.
In other words, there are many good reasons for Christians to be excited about the advances that will result from synthetic biology. It would be wise to support efforts to create artificial life—yet there are still legitimate concerns over synthetic biology that need addressing.
Is synthetic biology safe?
When people think of scientists creating life in the lab, images of Frankenstein’s monster likely come to mind. Will scientists make organisms that “turn on their creators”? Will these artificial organisms run amok, causing a disaster of biblical proportions?
On the surface, these are not unreasonable concerns. However, at this point, work in synthetic biology is safe. Furthermore, there is no reason why advances in this field should ever pose a genuine threat to safety.
The protocells developed to date are fragile, metastable systems that cannot survive long even under the most optimal laboratory conditions. As they learn how to develop more robust systems, researchers could potentially design these systems in such a way that they can thrive under controlled conditions, but not outside the lab.
Likewise, the artificial microbes that Dr. Craig Venter and his collaborators are attempting to create from the top-down pose no safety hazard. These cells will be based on the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, an obligatory parasite incapable of surviving apart from its host. If the genes critical for mediating the host-parasite interaction are removed from M. Genitalium’s genome, then it will not survive outside the manufacturing facility.
The scientific community has a very good track record when it comes to regulating its activity, at least in these types of disciplines. Genetic engineering and recombinant DNA technology were synthetic biology’s forerunners. After some early success in recombinant DNA research, scientists voluntarily placed a moratorium on this work until safety protocols and other guiding principles could be established. (These guidelines and regulations were developed at the Asilomar Conference in 1975, organized by Paul Berg, a pioneer in recombinant DNA technology.) Scientists willingly adhere to these guidelines. To my knowledge, no significant incident involving recombinant DNA technology has occurred over the last 35 years or so.
There is no reason why something like the Asilomar Conference guidelines couldn’t be developed for artificial cells and protocells. With effective regulations in place, work in synthetic biology can be carried out in a safe manner.
Should scientists “play God”?
Christians’ concerns over synthetic biology extend far beyond ethical and safety considerations. They are worried that scientists are trying to usurp God’s role.
From my perspective, however, as human beings we have no choice but to play God—because we are made in His image. Whenever we create, design, invent, etc., we are manifesting the image of God. And we are also mimicking the Creator, albeit imperfectly.
If God is the Creator of life, then it is just a matter of time before we try to create life as well. Our ability to even attempt to create artificial life stems from the image of God. And if our desire is to use synthetic biology to take better care of the planet, to use resources more wisely, to help the sick, to improve the quality of life for people all over the world, then I maintain that there is nothing wrong with playing God.
The problem is not in playing God. The problem occurs when we try to usurp God’s authority. This was the sin committed at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–8). As I understand it, the construction of a tower reaching to the heavens, in and of itself, was not the problem. It was the motivation behind it. The builders desired to be like God, to take His place.
Unfortunately, this is the attitude of some—not all—of the scientists who work in synthetic biology. They see their work as pounding another nail in God’s coffin. This arrogance is the reason why Christians need to engage synthetic biology. This is why Christians in science need to become active in this field. If we don’t, we will have capitulated this very important technology into secular hands.
3. See note 2 for articles in support of this conclusion.
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