Monday, December 17, 2007

The Power We Wield

In case you haven’t been paying attention, we really do live in a Brave New World.

My favorite segment in the ethics classes I teach is our time spent on bioethics. I tell my class at the beginning of the semester that I am going to blow their minds in a few weeks, and sure enough, it is not hard to get stunned reactions out of the unsuspecting students.

Along those lines, comes this story from the Washington Post. For decades now, scientists have been manipulating bits and pieces of DNA for all kinds of reasons (a sizeable portion of the food you buy has been modified for some reason). But now, scientists have the ability to create whole strands of DNA, or create the right combination of chromosomes that when implanted in the right way can “recreate” the host DNA structure.

Scientists in Maryland have already built the world's first entirely handcrafted chromosome -- a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.

In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to "boot itself up," like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction.

What does this mean? As with almost all biotechnologies, it is a double-edged sword. Many of the applications can be harmless, silly, or genuinely helpful. Imagine scientists in their lab coats creating simple “bugs” to do their bidding when stimulated in the right way. The article notes companies that do just that:

LS9 Inc., a company in San Carlos, Calif., is already using E. coli bacteria that have been reprogrammed with synthetic DNA to produce a fuel alternative from a diet of corn syrup and sugar cane. So efficient are the bugs' synthetic metabolisms that LS9 predicts it will be able to sell the fuel for just $1.25 a gallon.

At a DuPont plant in Tennessee, other semi-synthetic bacteria are living on cornstarch and making the chemical 1,3 propanediol, or PDO. Millions of pounds of the stuff are being spun and woven into high-tech fabrics (DuPont's chief executive wears a pinstripe suit made of it), putting the bug-begotten chemical on track to become the first $1 billion biotech product that is not a pharmaceutical.

Imagine that! Your next suit might not mean the discomfiture of sheep somewhere in Ireland. Your next fashion statement might be fabrics woven from the excretions of artificially created bacteria in Tennessee.

But as fate would have it, there are at least two deeply serious problems. The first is frightening on a practical level, and the other is frightening on a more fundamental level.

While the government regulates harmful microbes and bacteria (in the noble goal of avoiding super-bugs, biological Armageddon, and things like that), the regulations do not apply to the DNA structures required to build them. And, as it turns out, you can find instructions on how to create those on the Internet.

ETC is a kind of biotechnology watch-dog group. Their program manager, Jim Thomas, notes, “The fact is, you can build viruses, and soon bacteria, from downloaded instructions on the Internet.”

The more fundamental problem has to do with the meaning of life. Not the kind of “meaning of life” intended when existentialists opine in their angst, but the kind of “meaning of life” that actually defines who and what we are.

Along with a technology that has the power to create completely fabricated and pre-designed life come the looming evils of eugenics. In the case that one is tempted to dismiss the radical realities of large numbers of individuals or governments deciding how people should look when they are born, keep in mind that less than 100 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of forced sterilization for the mentally handicapped. And who needs to recount the eugenic horrors of the Nazi regime? On a more immediate level, advances in biotechnology have lead to a new wave of abortions of children with downs syndrome. It may not produce the same visceral reaction that the Nazis and their genocidal policies receive, but that is eugenics nonetheless.

More than ever before, we need to wean ourselves from our addiction to technological and scientific progress for the sake of it. We have grown comfortable with scientific advancement—after all, its promise and much of its delivery has been to the ease of my life.

We need to listen to those in the public square who call for deep, careful, and even time-consuming thought on what it means to be human, and how these technologies either need to be regulated or simply disallowed.

And in addition to that, we need the Christian church to step up and meet the challenges of our culture. Instead of piddling with postmodern sensibilities and the consumer fancies of the people around us, we need to meet these deep and disturbing realities head-on with all the tools the Church has at its disposal.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Stem Cells and Politics

In the tussle and bustle of stem cell politics, there are those who make their stand for political reasons, and there are those who are more likely to make their stands for ethical and scientific reasons. With the recent breakthrough in stem cell research, not only can the scientific and ethical requirements be met, but some of the political views are now dinosaurs, on their way to extinction.

At least one political dinosaur on the NYT editorial board has decided to look directly into the plummeting comet and shake his or her fist. Here I stand, I can do no other! The scientific reason researchers have backed embryonic stem cell research so vociferously is that it has the potential of pluripotency—their stem cells can possibly be harvested and chemically manipulated to match any problem in any human body. The political reasons for backing embryonic stem cell research are much more fuzzy. Ethically, of course, the debate is difficult because, as the editor so calmly put it, “Religious conservatives deplore the research because tiny, days-old embryos are destroyed.”

The editorial is full of high-minded language about scientific potential and possibility. And it is true. Researchers in the field of embryonic stem cells see a great deal of possible application. On the other hand, researchers in the field of adult stem cell research have seen over 80 real-life actual applications and solutions to a wide range of disease and sickness. So far, embryonic stem cell application has resulted in no known cures, and a lot of benign tumors (Embryonic stem cells, when actually applied, don’t turn off their growth rate at the right time; they become tumors). I would argue that those in the shoes of the NYT editor are not backing embryonic stem cell research for scientific reasons.

Ethically, there is literally no debate over the use of adult stem cells. And all smarmy dismissals aside, there are serious ethical questions about the destruction of embryos for their stem cells. The current breakthrough not only has the benefit of the science of embryonic stem cells, it has the benefit of the morality of adult stem cell research. If the new research pans out, it is literally the best of both worlds.

And politically? My view is that in the dance between politics and truth, truth should lead and politics follow. For this poor dinosaur, however, their politics lead them into the La Brea Tar Pits of history.

Gospel of Judas Revelation

Last year there was a great brouhaha raised with the National Geographic Society’s publication of the Gospel of Judas. According to the scholars who translated it, it was a critical look into the belief system of Christianity (Judas was a good guy, and so on), and according to the buzz on the street and among the blogs, it was a kind of blow to the credibility of Christianity.

The blog buzz has been answered over and over (granting that the scholarship of the translation was right). Now, it turns out, the scholarship has been called into serious question. April D. DeCondick, a professor of Biblical Studies at Rice has published a new look into the translation of the Gospel of Judas and written a piece for the NYT detailing some of the serious problems with the original NGS’s publication.

Among other things she notes:

Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”


Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception.

At the end of her article, she notes that the NGS broke a handful of academic protocols when handling an ancient text. Instead of making it available to the appropriate community, the NGS carefully controlled their release. Instead of blowing up copies of the text to make them easier for others to read, they reduced them by 56%.

It is a short piece, so I will leave the rest of the details to you.

HT: Is This Thing On?