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Biotechnology: Becoming Responsible Stewards of Knowledge

A biblical approach to resolving ethical dilemmas raised by advances in biotechnology

By Christina M.H. Powell

Biotechnology began in antiquity when people used yeast to produce leavened bread. In 1857, Louis Pasteur discovered how this fermentation process worked. Today, we employ biotechnology to cure diseases, feed the world’s population, restore the environment, and produce fuel. Biotechnology impacts our daily life in a myriad of ways. When you prepare your morning coffee1, put on a clean white shirt2, or order a cheeseburger for lunch3, you welcome biotechnology into your day. Yet the same biotechnology that brings cures and conveniences often raises ethical concerns. Are we playing God when we change the genetic blueprint of bacteria for human benefit? Will genetically modified crops destroy local ecosystems or, conversely, will they protect the environment by reducing the use of pesticides? Are man-made nanoparticles the answer to improved cancer treatment or are they a toxic hazard?

Challenging questions such as these demonstrate the need for careful bioethical analysis from a Christian perspective. Without a biblical framework for addressing these contemporary issues, pastors may find themselves either avoiding discussions surrounding technology or viewing all technological progress with suspicion. Yet, parishioners benefit greatly from informed Christian leaders who can provide biblical guidance on difficult topics. Let us consider a biblical approach to resolving ethical dilemmas raised by advances in biotechnology.

Defining Biotechnology

Biotechnology involves the use of living things or derivatives of living things to make or modify products for a specific application. In short, biotechnology is applied biology. Since biotechnology involves modifying living things for human purposes, there is great potential for ethical concerns.

We use biotechnology in medicine, agriculture, engineering, and environmental remediation. For example, recombinant human insulin, the first ever biotechnology medicine to be commercialized — entered the market in 1982 — saving the lives of insulin-dependent diabetics allergic to insulin derived from the pancreases of cows and pigs. To make this biosynthetic human insulin, researchers inserted the gene for human insulin into a small circle of DNA (plasmid) found in bacteria, turning the bacteria into little insulin producing factories. Today, most insulin is recombinant human insulin.

Another example of biotechnology in the medical field is the hepatitis B vaccine, considered the first anticancer vaccine by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This vaccine prevents the hepatitis B virus from causing liver damage that can lead to liver cancer. The hepatitis B vaccine consists of a viral protein (hepatitis B surface antigen) inserted into yeast cells. The yeast cells become factories for making the viral protein for vaccine production. Since the vaccine contains only one viral protein and not the whole virus, the vaccine cannot accidentally cause a viral infection.

An example of biotechnology used in the dairy industry is recombinant chymosin, the first commercial food product produced by genetic engineering. Chymosin, traditionally known as rennet, is an enzyme used to coagulate milk in the cheese-making process. Since 2000 B.C., cheese makers obtained this substance from the stomach of unweaned calves, lambs, and baby goats. The demand for chymosin in the cheese-making industry started to outstrip the supply of baby calf stomachs in the late 1960s. During the second half of the 1980s, the biotech industry developed a way to produce large quantities of highly pure calf chymosin by inserting the calf gene for this enzyme into microorganisms. Today, cheese makers manufacture more than 60 percent of cheese products using bioengineered chymosin.

Biotechnology contributes to environmental remediation by harnessing bacteria capable of breaking down organic toxins in soil. For example, we can clean soil contaminated by herbicides toxic to wildlife with soil bacteria such as Pseudomonas putida, the first patented organism in the world. In mere hours, these bacteria can rid the soil of toxins that would take a decade to break down on their own. Pseudomonas putida can also break down industrial contaminants such as toluene, a component of paint thinner. Bioremediation may involve the introduction of new organisms to a site or adjustment of environmental conditions to enhance the ability of existing organisms to degrade toxins.

Discerning a Biblical Perspective

While you will not find modern scientific terms in a Bible concordance, the Bible provides an ethical framework for addressing contemporary issues that arise from technological advances. The Bible teaches that while humans are part of creation, they stand apart from the rest of creation in two important ways. First, God created men and women in His image (Genesis 1:26–28). Second, God gave humans the responsibility to care for His creation (Genesis 2:15).

Since God created humans in His image, human life has special value. God also gave humanity dominion over the rest of the animals. Conducting research to develop ways to improve human life is an appropriate response to God’s command to subdue the earth. Yet, those created in the image of God carry the responsibility of reflecting the character of God. God does not forget the needs of the sparrow (Luke 12:6). Similarly, humans must not overlook the needs of God’s creation. We must treat animals humanely. We must not be careless with the environment or wasteful with the Earth’s resources.

The biblical model of mankind’s relationship with the rest of creation is that of stewardship. In the Bible, a steward was a servant who took care of the affairs of his master’s household. Stewardship implies a responsibility to care for something that belongs to another. The Bible teaches, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). While we can use living creatures for the well-being of humans, we must realize that we are responsible for not harming God’s creation in our use of technology.

Finally, the Bible teaches that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:33). Thus, we must consider technologies in light of their effect on human relationships. Does the technology help some people at the expense of others? Does the technology provide convenience today at the expense of the needs of future generations? Does the technology uphold the dignity of human life?

Resolving Ethical Dilemmas

The Bible teaches that we must be responsible stewards of our technological knowledge. The Bible provides answers to ethical dilemmas by showing us the correct questions to ask when examining the merits of a new advance in biotechnology. For example, we can ask whether or not the new technology respects the sanctity of human life. Does the technology promote the treatment of human life as a commodity? How does the new technology impact social structures? We must examine the effects of a technology in context. For example, an advance in agricultural biotechnology, such as the development of a disease-resistant crop, may be a blessing for large-scale commercial farms in the United States. However, a subsistence farmer in sub-Saharan Africa who does not have access to the biotech seed will realize no benefit, although his need is greater. We must develop ways of making technological advances available to those most in need alongside the technology itself.

In dealing with technology that modifies living things for human purposes, we must question the impact a genetically engineered organism might have on the wider environment. What safeguards must be in place to use the technology properly? Certain technology may be acceptable for use in a country with adequate safety standards, but unacceptable in a country where such standards are not sufficiently developed.

While biotechnology can evoke fears of man playing God because biotechnology deals with living things or derivatives of living things, biotech solutions may be far safer than when man uses chemical reactions outside of living systems to synthesize new chemicals such as pesticides. A recombinant protein manufactured in yeast for use in a vaccine is usually much purer than the same protein extracted from the original animal source. A man-made nanoparticle is not necessarily dangerous just because it is constructed in a laboratory. Yet, caution is in order anytime man synthesizes a substance outside of its natural context.

Pastors would do well to avoid simple black and white pronouncements regarding biotechnology. Biotechnology can bring us wonderful discoveries as helpful as the pasteurization process that safeguards the milk you pour on your cereal at breakfast. Yet we need to regulate biotechnology adequately and engage in ethical reflection to ensure we are becoming responsible stewards of the knowledge we are gaining through research. Pastors have the responsibility of teaching their congregations the biblical model of stewardship that must be used to resolve the ethical dilemmas that arise from technological progress.

Christina M.H. Powell

CHRISTINA M. H. POWELL, an ordained minister, author, medical writer, research scientist trained at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University, and the author of "Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard Ph.D. Explores Challenges to Faith" (InterVarsity Press, 2014).She speaks in churches and conferences nationwide and addresses faith and science issues at www.questioningyourdoubts.com.

Notes

1. Coffee filters often are made with a biotechnology process that uses enzymes to bleach the filter paper, reducing the amount of chlorine and energy used in manufacturing. This process is better for both the environment and the health of coffee drinkers.

2. Most laundry detergents contain enzymes developed through biotechnology to remove deep stains, such as grass stains. These enzymes replace the phosphate additives that pollute rivers and streams. The enzymes also allow washing at lower temperatures, conserving energy.

3. Approximately 60 percent of all hard cheese products are made using the biotech enzyme, chymosin, to curdle milk during cheese production (http://www.bio.org/speeches/pubs/solutions/life.asp).

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