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The Morality of Vaccines Made Using Embryonic Cell Lines

Photo Credit: James Gathany Content Providers(s): CDC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vaccines certainly cause a lot of public tension. I’m not just talking about those who disagree that vaccines are safe and effective; how some vaccines are made can raise some understandable moral concerns.

To make some vaccines, like the Rubella vaccine for example, we need to use diploid[1] human cells from human embryos. In this post I’d like to explore a few questions about this: Why do we need those cells? Where do those cells come from? And what moral questions do these cells raise for Christians?

What Do Human Embryonic Diploid Cells Have To Do With Vaccines?

I think most people are familiar with the general idea of vaccines: they contain a part of a virus that your immune system can recognize and remember, but that won’t infect you like a normal version of the virus. If you get infected with the full-strength virus later then your body already knows how to fight it because it looks similar to the vaccine.

So the question is, how do we get those parts of viruses to make vaccines with?

The bottom line is that we need to grow a lot of viruses. And viruses don’t grow by themselves – they need cells to infect and be built in. We need lots of virus in order to make lots of vaccine, so we need lots of cells too.

In some cases like the measles or flu vaccines we can use the cells in developing chicken eggs to grow viruses. Unfortunately that doesn’t always work because viruses can be highly specific about the types of cells they can infect. Sometimes you need to use human cells, but of course we don’t want to infect humans.

Cartoon of how viruses like Rubella leave a cell through the cell membrane. Once it’s out, we can collect and use them to make vaccines. Animation by Gleiberg at German Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Ideally we can just grow human cells in a lab, infect them with a virus, and collect the viruses when they pop out of the cells. But those cells would need a few abilities to be useful to us:

  1. They need the ability to be infected by the virus. Different viruses infect different types of cells in the body.
  2. We need to be able to grow lots of these cells. Human cells that aren’t cancer get old after a while and stop making more cells. This is called The Hayflick Limit and it’s bad news for for mass production.
  3. They need to stay unchanged enough that we can use them reliably. Some cancer cells may satisfy the other two criteria, but cancer is highly unstable, and dangerous if the cells somehow got into a vaccine.

Here’s where the human embryonic diploid cells come in.

Embryonic cells are so young that they can divide enough times to be useful for mass production. Just two samples of embryonic cells (cell lines) called WI-38[2] and MRC-5 have been grown for making vaccines since the 1960’s without us needing to collect any new cell samples.

Certain types of embryonic cells like WI-38 can be successfully infected with viruses we need vaccines for like Rubella.

Since embryonic cells are also normal healthy cells they are also genetically stable. That along with their long dividing life makes embryonic cells uniquely ideal for industrial production of vaccines.

So that’s all pretty great until we get to the part where the cells need to come from an embryonic human who also needs the cells.

What Moral Questions Should We Ask About Using These Cells?

In a sense it’s not hard to see why some people have concerns about vaccines cultured in human embryonic cells. The only way we have to do that is to get them from a deceased human.

Both WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines were samples taken from fetuses aborted in voluntary abortions in the 1960’s. That makes for instant moral tension for Christian people who are morally opposed to voluntary abortions.

But vague tension isn’t helpful. We need to ask how to thoroughly understand and deal with this tension.

I appreciate the Roman Catholic church for usually being pretty methodical about trying to navigate scientific and moral issues, and in this case they do not disappoint. The Pontifical Academy For Life issued a thoughtful response letter to address this specific issue back in 2005, and you can read the whole thing here.

The basic idea the letter outlines is that by using cell lines produced from abortions, and by not publicly standing against the act of abortion that made the cells available, researchers producing and people using the vaccines bear some moral “cooperation” with the abortions.

The letter is short, carefully worded, and I think those issues are well explained, so I do recommend reading it for yourself. I think I have a criticism of it, but mostly agree with the practical conclusions.

My criticism is that the entire letter hinges on the moral problem being described as “cooperation” with an abortion. Personally I think that is a bit of a stretch. There is no evidence that the development of cell lines from these tissue samples had anything to do with the decision of these two women to get abortions, or with the act of the abortions themselves.

As far as I can see, the entire abortion side of this could be seen as a moral compartment that is only relevant to itself. I may disagree with abortion morally, but not disagree with taking cell samples from a human body. If taking the sample doesn’t affect whether or not the abortion occurs, or how it occurs, why should these two things be considered morally connected?

Consider if the samples had been taken from spontaneous miscarriages rather than voluntarily aborted fetuses. Would we say that using the cell lines is cooperation with a miscarriage? I don’t think so.

As for practical conclusions, I think my own view and the Pontifical Academy For Life letter mostly agree. Vaccines that use embryonic human diploid cells have done and continue to do a great deal to decrease suffering and death due to disease in the world. If the cell lines issue bothers your conscience, and there is a different vaccine available, using the different vaccine would be a great option.

If there is no other option, then using the vaccine is a moral option regardless. At worst, it’s a great moral good to protect yourself and others with only a weak distant connection to something many Christians consider immoral.

And if someday we develop the technology to culture viruses in cells that have a morally unquestionable origin for all Christians, then that’s all the better. But in the meantime we have these cells already, and any weak connection to abortion they have is half a century behind them.

Notes

[1] Diploid means cells that have two sets of chromosomes, like most (but not all) cells in the human body.

[2] Leonard Hayflick was also the fellow who worked to establish the WI-38 cell line. Establishing cell lines involves more moral question than just abortion. Nature has a good introduction to that interesting story here: http://www.nature.com/news/medical-research-cell-division-1.13273

 

Consensus and Confidence: 2 Important Questions to Ask About Every Scientific Idea

These are the first two questions I use to quickly sort scientific claims into “worth considering” or “rubbish,” and I think others might find them useful too. Every day I see scientific claims of all sorts floating around the internet, and that’s pretty great to see because I’m pretty excited about science. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to verify every claim by investigating thoroughly. Frankly, nobody does. So a lot of these claims just get ignored as irrelevant to life (the multiverse theory is super great!), but others are a bit more important for how I live my life and what organizations I support (Does sexual reorientation therapy work? (no, it doesn’t)), but I may still not have time to thoroughly research.

Fortunately, without needing to get a PhD, I use two simple questions that I think can show what’s really going on with a scientific claim pretty quickly and reliably.

Question 1: Is there good consensus about the claim?

That is, do the experts in the field mostly agree with the claim? Science is a critical community effort. If there is a good argument against an idea, scientists will gleefully point it out. I know I certainly do, and I haven’t met a scientists yet who doesn’t enjoy disagreeing with other scientists where possible. So when there is strong agreement among experts, who should know of any good arguments for or against, then that’s strong evidence that the idea is good.

A handy thing about scientists is that they organize themselves into professional organizations to share what they agree or disagree on, so it’s often not hard to figure out if there is good consensus. You can look at any large psychology association like the APA and they will tell you that trying to make a gay person straight isn’t a good idea. Because the APA is clear about the subject, and because the APA represents the experts in the field, I can confidently say that there is good consensus here.

This is the first question I ask because it immediately weeds out most whackos. I can probably find someone with a PhD to agree with any nonsense idea I can think of, and that’s awful for confirmation bias. If I really wanted to believe the sun revolves around the Earth, I can find a person with a PhD to agree with me (even with arguments from the Bible!). But as soon as I ask about consensus, it becomes pretty clear if a scientific idea is even worth considering or not. Even though I am not an astrophysicist, I’m pretty confident that geocentrism is not a serious scientific idea these days. The American Astronomical Society doesn’t even mention it, so there’s no consensus saying geocentrism is accurate.

Question 2: What is the strength of confidence in the claim?

The first questions clears away most garbage, but even a good idea might not be super useful or clear. Confidence is a term scientists use to mean how certain they are that new evidence will not overturn an idea. Confidence can often be calculated by using statistical formulas too boring for me to elaborate on here. Low confidence often also means low consensus. However, low confidence despite consensus could happen when there just isn’t much evidence for or against an idea yet, but there also aren’t any other good options.

For example: Any serious biology association concerned with the origins of life will have articles about the chemical evolution of life, because there is good consensus that it probably happened somehow. It makes sense scientifically, we have some evidence, so it’s a good idea with good consensus. But how confident are we about how that happened? Not at all, really. In fact, there is no standard theory of the origin of life, because scientists just aren’t sure and are honest about that. New evidence could very easily completely change our understanding on this topic.

On the other hand, an idea we have high confidence about almost certainly will never be overturned by further evidence. Things like the Earth orbiting the Sun, our planet being more than 4 Billion years old, we juts have so much clear evidence about. There is always a chance of new evidence overturning an idea in science, but sometimes it’s completely unreasonable expect it to happen.

So if someone were to tell me about a really neat mechanism for the origin of life that involved chemical evolution, the claim would make it past my first question. There is good consensus that it’s a good idea. But as soon as I ask about confidence level, it would become clear that it’s a weakly evidenced idea. Still interesting, slightly less exciting, and a lot less useful.

I think the above two questions can let anyone quickly and reliably sort science claims into being garbage, worth considering, or probably true. Do you have different questions you use for this? Or disagree with mine? As a scientist, I’d be interested to hear about it!

Book Review: Lent Is Not Rocket Science

Author: W. Nicholas Knisely
Publisher: Forward Movement, Cincinnati, OH
Date of Publication: 2015
Title: Lent Is Not Rocket Science: An Exploration of God, Creation, and the Cosmos.

This is the first year that I’ve done something pretty regularly for lent and it’s been a nice addition to life. I picked up Lent Is Not Rocket Science from a church I was attending an Ash Wednesday service at. On the way out the pastor asked if I’d like a lent devotional, or, a science lent devotional. The choice was obvious.

The devotional’s format is simple and easy to read. A focus Bible verse or other quote, 2-4 short pages of meditation related to science and tradition, and leaving off with a few thoughtful questions. The way science is used doesn’t feel corny or forced, but instead seems genuinely insightful. Concepts like chemical equilibrium have clear comparison so how we can live balanced lives. Cosmic mysteries like dark matter give insight into how we can learn to comfortably deal with spiritual mysteries as well. The comparison with scientific concepts gives a concrete and relatable quality to the spiritual meditation rather than feeling like a corny token science fact.

The questions at the end of each day strike a balance between being easily applicable to daily life and the more abstract. Some of these are easy to answer: “What are the forces in your life that balance you and allow you to find stability?. . . Where is God in this balance?”(51). Other questions are important, but more difficult and abstract: “Is it possible for you to see God’s constant action in history?” (48). Yes, I guess, but I’m honestly not sure to what extent. It’s worth thinking about.

The author, W. Nicholas Knisely, is the current Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island and has done graduate studies in Physics and Astronomy. Knisely’s scientific and theological training lets him write about both subjects competently and share useful insight. I’ve seen one too many pastors with no real science training try to talk about science and completely mess it up. Or, it often comes across as a corny overly-sentimental and unnecessary addition to a sermon. Two weeks in, I haven’t found examples of either mistake in this devotional.

I wasn’t sure what to think before I started, but I’ve really enjoyed the time spent every day with Lent Is Not Rocket Science. It’s both intellectually and spiritually engaging. If you’re looking for a lent devotional that can engage with science, scripture, and tradition in positive ways, this devotional could be for you.

 

 

The QA Project is a Great Pro-Life Strategy

Abortion is such an awkward issue. A lot of folks feel VERY strongly about their opinions on the topic, so they badly want to talk about it, but trying to talk about it often ends with unproductive conversation or worse. In my opinion, inability to have good conversations is the single biggest problem the Pro-Life movement has. Fortunately, conversation doesn’t have to be something to waste time or lose friends over. You just need a good strategy, and I think one of the best strategies out there is what the QA Project does.

The QA project is a wonderfully simple concept called “clipboarding” that has all the right characteristics of a great strategy. The idea is this: you get a few people with clipboards, you have a few prepared questions, and you go somewhere public and ask people the questions.

  • What do you think the current legal restrictions are on abortion in Canada?
  • Do you think there should be restrictions on abortion in Canada?
  • What restrictions would you suggest?

It’s also helpful to have a few facts on hand, like the answer to what legal restrictions there are in Canada (none), but the more important thing is that you’re out asking people questions. This is fantastic because people are almost always willing to tell you what they think, and this exercise encourages folks to think about the issues! Once people know you’re a decent person, and care about hearing what they think, lots of people are happy to continue chatting about the topic. It’s an effective ice-breaker, and people’s reactions to the QA project are overwhelmingly positive in my experience.

Another great thing about this strategy is that it’s so intellectually honest. Should there be more restrictions on abortion in Canada? Well, I have an opinion, and I think it’s right. So does everyone else. But if someone can see that I’m mistaken (I always could be), I want them to tell me, and I doubt I’m alone on this. This is the basis of healthy productive conversation about a controversial issue: of course we all think we’re right, but our goal in conversation should be to find out if there is anything we’re missing, not to beat the other person’s argument.

By asking others what they think, you’re taking the first step and being willing to test your own ideas against facts you might not be aware of.  Many people really appreciate that and will ask what you think too. At very least, if you ask the questions, you’ve made someone think about an important issue and haven’t taken up too much of their time. The worst case scenario here is that someone doesn’t want to answer your questions, which is really not a big deal. This is a super low-risk strategy.

All that being said, I would still give a couple warnings. Despite the QA Project’s strengths, It’s still possible to do this poorly.

The biggest risk is that some folks can get a bit excited and not really pay much attention to other people’s answers to the questions, then jump right into arguing some pro-life apologetics talking point. What a way to come across as a pushy jerk. The strength of the QA project is the simple format to foster healthy conversation. Ask questions earnestly, and listen carefully to the answers. If it’s not absolutely clear that the other person wants to hear your thoughts, just ask to make it clear.

The other major risk is what sort of information you include along with the questions. Frankly, there is an awful lot of misinformation out there about abortion. If you share some factually untrue information in an attempt to enlighten someone, you can be sure that is the one thing they’ll remember most about you and your opinion. Any extra facts that are included with this sort of project should be absolutely thoroughly researched.

For anyone interested, you can order a prepared kit to do this from National Campus Life Network (NCLN), and I’ve even seen them send out a representative to a university campus to help do it. NCLN focuses on university pro-life clubs, but I think the QA Project would be great for any public space you can do it legally in. If you’re on a budget, frankly, this isn’t hard to put together yourself for a few bucks. Just get some clipboards, pens, and paper with questions on it.

Overall, the QA project is hands-down my favorite way of approaching pro-life issues in a productive way. Low risk, high positive results, cheap, easy, intellectually honest: what more could you ask for?

 

 

Why Your Church Should Have A Science Officer


Chief science officer isn’t exactly a traditional role in most Christian denominations. Sure you have pastors, elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers and others. Science officer, not so much. But having a science officer, or even a science council would make an awful lot of sense for churches in today’s society. Consider the following:

Christians want to make or interact with empirical claims relevant to their faith.

We live in a scientific age. Many of the biggest questions from a Christian perspective in modern society are either directly or indirectly related to science. That’s part of the reason I write this blog; to explore those new and interesting questions. Whether we’re talking about sex and gender, stem cell research, when life begins, birth control, if gun laws are effective, how to best help refugees, human origins, or if the physical world is any evidence for God existing, there’s a lot of science involved. These topics bring up deep faith questions, and folks expect their faith to help address those questions.

But unfortunately. . .

There are a ton of folks spreading misinformation about science for profit or from ignorance.

Lying about science is big business. The recent hype over “Fake News” is a pretty clear example. Science is a prime target for professional liars because people care about what science has to say, but most people don’t have the time or training to thoroughly investigate most topics. It’s painfully easy to be fooled by a good liar about a topic you have no training in. I’m currently working on a fairly large research project for a series of future posts, and after many hours of using my science research training to analyze dozens of primary sources, it’s still not absolutely clear who is right and/or being honest. Science literacy takes time. Without my research skills or the time to invest in the project, it would be a pretty hopeless endeavor.

Pastors are seldom trained to critically examine scientific claims.

To evaluate science well, you need science training. Period. Pastors are not required to be trained in science in most Christian traditions, though, there are quite a few pastors who are. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, nobody has to be an expert on everything, and an effective Bible scholar is what is reasonable to expect from a pastor. However, if a pastor isn’t trained in science, they should be pretty reluctant to form strong opinions on scientific subjects they don’t know much about. That’s just being honest, and I think that’s also a reasonable expectation to have for a pastor.

All too often, pastors seem to default to digging up the supporting opinions of folks who agree with their preconceived theological opinions rather than critically looking for what the scientific community actually thinks. Meanwhile, there are usually honest scientists in a congregation, or in a nearby congregation, or somewhere in the community who could easily tell you what scientists think. So why not ask them scientific questions?

We (should) care about what’s true.

Not too long ago I was chatting on and off with a local pastor about the Theory of Evolution, and in an effort to convince me of his young Earth opinion he lent me a book by a fairly prolific young Earth writer. This book contained many obvious factual inaccuracies to make its points, which I can only assume were written dishonestly rather than accidentally because the author had a PhD in a scientific field. Anyone with scientific training could spot these lies as obvious. Unfortunately, the pastor who lent me the book responded to this fact with a shoulder shrug rather than any kind of moral outrage. This was surprising to me, since I would expect a Bible teacher to care as much as me about dishonest or mistaken teaching:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1 ESV).

That strictness is a weight I have always felt when talking about scripture, and a weight I also feel when making strong claims about science. A healthy fear of making a mistake should be there. As for outright liars, Jesus himself certainly had nothing nice to say about them:

“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44 ESV).

 Irresponsibility about science is morally offensive.

If we as Christians don’t give a proper care about what’s true and honest, what does that say about the moral quality of our faith? It looks pretty darn bad to any honest person, and honest people are noticing. As the Barna group reports as part of their study on why 3 out of 5 young people leave the church:

“Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ‘Christianity is anti-science’ (25%).”

Frankly, being irresponsible about how science is treated can only result in a drain in any church’s vitality and brain power. Folks should leave a church that doesn’t care about lying; dishonesty is wrong.

So why just accept this problem? There are scientists who are Christians around. Some of us are called to be pastors, some parents, some craftsmen, and some scientists. So why not get scientists to serve the church with their expertise as pastors do with theirs? Some denominations do this sort of thing. The Vatican has its own observatory and trained astronomers. In the scientific age we live in, surrounded by scientific questions important to our faith, it seems irresponsible not to be listening carefully to the scientific community.

So live long, and prosper, and go ask a scientist.

Book Review: Not By Chance! Shattering the Modern Theory of Evolution

Alternate title suggested by this review: One physicist thinks he’s more clever about evolution than 150 years of actual biologists.

Author: Dr. Lee Spetner
Publisher: The Judaica Press Inc., Brooklyn, NY
Date of Publication: 1998
Title: Not by chance! Shattering The Modern Theory of Evolution.

What do you get when someone takes an introductory level course on evolution, and instead of asking questions in class, decides that since they have questions they must be more clever than 150 years of biologists and must write a book about how clever they are? Well, you get this book.

I must admit, I did not finish the book. I made it through chapter 5 and had more than enough insight into Spetner’s level of competence in this field.

The whole book could be summarized much the same as any Intelligent Design (ID) argument. The ID thesis really has 2 parts: 1) Look at all this really complicated stuff! Then comes 2) Since all this stuff is so complicated, it must have been assembled by something other than evolution! [insert intelligent force here].

Spetner gets right to work explaining that cells, DNA, proteins, reproduction, and development are all really complicated things in chapter 2. (Look at all this complicated stuff!). This must be a problem because “there is no evidence that complexity has been built up by the process described by” evolution (Spetner 61). Or at least no evidence Spetner is competent or honest enough to mention. Go ask a biologist about examples of duplication and exaptation of genes and they likely won’t have any trouble giving you several off the top of their head.

But since Spetner is too clever to ask questions of real biologists, he decides to come to an ID answer to his imagined problem for evolution. Chapter seven: The Deck is Stacked! I did skim this chapter. Using several examples Spetner explains his Great Idea: the Non-Random Evolutionary Hypothesis. “The environment induces a change in either the phenotype or the genotype. . . the NREH does not suffer from the contradictions of the [Neo Darwinian Theory], and promises therefore to provide a more consistent picture of life.” (Spetner 208). Not long after, and absolutely unsurprisingly, Spetner finds space to jam God into the works: “The NREH, on the other hand, is agnostic and poses no contradictions to creation. The NREH, as an explanation of evolution, is in fact derivable from Talmudic sources.”

Besides the thesis being trash, not much else can be said about the book. The writing is painful. Many chapters open with campy made-up scenarios like Cowboy Chuck shooting Cowboy Bert for winning poker, because winning against a straight flush is too unlikely. This is certainly a subjective thing, but it really made me cringe.

Spetner’s rampant incompetence also is pretty cringe-worthy. He makes all sorts of frankly factually incorrect claims about population dynamics and genetics. “Population size is not controlled by starvation, disease, or predation” (Spetner 16), except for the painfully well-understood fact that starvation, predation, and disease do greatly control population sizes. Or, “one step of evolution cannot, on the average, bring to the genome more than one bit of information” (Spetner 72), in which case he has arbitrarily defined one bit to mean any genetic change whatsoever instead of any definition of information that scientists actually use. Ugh. A guy can only take so much of watching his field of study be incompetently represented before needing to put a book down.

This book is just a mess of incompetence. I think it’s the first book I’ve read by an ID supporter, and I suspect it will be the last. Based on what I’ve seen of ID writing elsewhere on blogs, this book was as about as intelligently designed as they come.

 

 

 

 

 

Human-Pig Chimeras: Questions, Concerns, How They Work

There was recently a cool study published in Cell about making human-pig chimeras that was exciting enough to make the news a few weeks ago. I’m not surprised, since the research is a move towards solving a big problem: organ donation shortages. The US Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network reports that 22 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant. Most healthy organs are being used by healthy people who also need them and/or are understandably unwilling to take the risk of donating a kidney.

The other reason I’m not surprised it made the news is that making human-pig chimeras is off-putting to a lot of folks. I think the idea of human-pig chimeras raises a lot of interesting and important ethical and theological  questions about how we understand who we are and our relation to other life.

How Can This Work?

Scientists have actually been making inter-species chimeras for decades now. It’s a classic developmental biology experiment using a technique that was pioneered by Nicole Marthe Le Douarin, and has let us learn a whole lot about how different organisms develop. In the classic experiment, the idea is pretty simple: you take two organisms that are similar and at similar early stages of development, you carefully slice off a particular piece of each, swap the pieces, and see how they grow.

Classic developmental biology experiment. Graft part of a quail embryo onto a chick embryo and see how it develops.

In the classic example, part of a quail embryo gets grafted onto a chick embryo. The reason is that quail cells are easy to distinguish from chick cells when you look at them under a microscope. The super cool and useful thing about this experiment is that you can then watch to see where those quail cells go. Many experiments have been done this way to do something called Fate Mapping, which is figuring out which cells end up where at different stages of development. This lets us know which parts of the relatively early embryo in the picture above will eventually form a brain, or wings. . .

A chick-quail chimera. Mostly chick, but with quail wings. Images from the Society for Developmental Biology

This is not exactly how human-pig chimeras were made, but it’s a similar idea. These experiments do give us needed information to make human-pig chimeras to grow donor organs: what cells turn into different organs, and where they have to be to turn into those organs. If you think about it, all the cells in a complex organism like a chicken are the offspring of a single cell. How do the cells end up so different? They respond to different signals that are in different places in the embryo during development. If you give some pluripotent stem cells the right signals at the right time, they can turn into any body tissue you want.

That’s the dream anyways. We’re not there yet.

So what’s the story with this new study?

The Wu et al. human-pig chimera experiment that recently made the news was actually pretty simple. They took some pluripotent (can become almost any cell type) human stem cells and put them into some pig embryos. Instead of using later stage embryos like in the graft picture above, these scientists mixed the cells at the blastocyst stage, which is a really early stage. Earlier means fewer cells around, and that means it’s harder to control where they will end up.

An example of injecting cells into a blastocyst. Note how few other cells there are. (Source)

The results reported in the paper were modest. They grew the embryos for a few weeks inside some sows and then checked to see if there were still human cells inside. There were, which is the big news. They have some pretty nice microscope pictures with the human cells labelled in the paper itself, so click over and have a look if you’re interested.

Just getting human and pig cells to grow side-by-side in an embryo is a new thing. The less exciting news is that it seems few human cells survived, and a lot more work needs to be done to get to figure out how to usefully grow human organs in pigs. A known problem with trying to do this is that the pig cells will out-compete the human cells to build the organs.

The hope is that someday we can genetically turn off the pig cells’ normal ability to make certain organs, and maybe use some of that fate mapping  to put human cells in the right place to make the organs instead. Science takes time and hard work. In the mean-time, the possibility of this future technology raises a lot of pretty interesting questions and concerns.

Some Concerns

For one, the thought of part-human-part-pig creatures tends to give folks a sort of general uneasy sort of grossed out feeling. It’s hard to say what to even think about such a thing, so it’s best to be careful. At least in the US, the NIH is not currently funding such research because of this, but the talk is that they’re working on changing that. The fact of the matter is, this research is so promising for growing needed human organs in the future that a general feeling of “I don’t know what to think about this” is not a strong enough reason to prevent the work from moving forward eventually.  We would need strong and clear reason to block such research altogether. We don’t have such a reason currently.

There are some hypothetical risks that give clear reasons to not just let these human-pig chimeras grow to maturity right now, though. As mentioned, it’s hard to say where the human cells would end up. What if there were a lot that ended up in the brain? The absolute worst case scenario would be an essentially human brain inside a pig’s body. What if they ended up in the gonads? Could two such pigs produce a human child? These outcomes seem pretty fantastical, and pretty unlikely. But the thing is, we just don’t know what would happen, but we do know some bad stuff could happen, so careful step-by-step experiment is definitely warranted.

Some Questions

I find the questions that this sort of work raises to be pretty fascinating. I think what makes some folks leery about this sort of thing in general is a perceived breakdown of the wall between human and animal life. This can be unnerving, since we’re pretty comfortable doing things like killing and eating animals, but not so much with humans (fortunately!). The fact of the matter is that a human-pig chimera would be part human cells and part pig cells. So how should we treat such a creature? Different than a normal pig even if it acts the same and looks the same?

When exactly does a creature classify as human? When it reaches more than 50% human cells? Picking an arbitrary percentage like that doesn’t seem like a rational way to figure out such a thing.

Part of the answer to those questions is a more theological question: what exactly does in mean to Christians that humans are “in the image of God”? For those who would ascribe some spiritual significance to human cells in general, any human-pig chimera is going to be morally insulting. On the opposite extreme, is the image of God just human faculties  and not the human form in any respect? If that’s the case, would we also be comfortable with something like growing genetically engineered brainless human bodies to harvest organs from? That sort of thing may be even further into science fiction territory, but is a reasonable possibility in the future.

For now, we can sort of enjoy the fact that these questions aren’t imminently bearing down on us. But the future is coming. This technology is being developed. It will be better to try to sort out reasonable answers soon before we need them. I’m hoping to explore some of these questions more specifically in some future posts.

Scientific Literature Cited

Wu, J., Platero-Luengo, A., Sakurai, M., Sugawara, A., Gil, M.A., Yamauchi, T., Suzuki, K.,
Bogliotti, Y.S., Cuello, C., Valencia, M.M., et al. (2017). Interspecies Chimerism with
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Fun Genetics Fact: Humans And Chimps More Alike Than Cats And Lions

Just some fun playing with data sets today. As seen below, by using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) similarity, you can see how many differences there are between species. As it turns out, we’re more closely related to Chimpanzees than our cats are to lions. You might need to click on the image to enlarge it enough to read properly.

It’s also worth mentioning that all this data is freely available in the NCBI nucleotide database. Also, anyone can compare sequences with their BLAST program (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool) for free. It can be pretty cool to wander around the data and compare sequences to see what exactly makes a lion so different from a house cat. The amount of free data and tools available is pretty amazing!

The other tool I used to get data for the above image is Onezoom.org. This is another amazing free tool that anyone can use to wander around the tree of life. It’s super easy to use and visually appealing too. Primary sources for all their data are also properly referenced, which makes doing any deeper research really simple.

Maybe I’ll do explanations of how great NCBI and Onezoom are another time, but for now, enjoy today’s fun genetics fact.

Save Endangered Species? Why Bother?

ParrotsKeeping endangered species around is an icon of environmentalist efforts, but in perspective, is it worth it? Should endangered species be any priority to Christians? There are easy ways to jump to a yes or no, but these are really questions that require some careful thought. Neither scripture nor science offer simple answers.

Unfortunately, scripture doesn’t offer much direct advice on this sort of problem. This makes sense, because managing ecosystems from our modern global perspective would have been foreign to ancient authors. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any useful principles we can get from the Bible here.

I think two of the most important principles come from Genesis. In the first few chapters, we are shown that God’s attitude to creatures is that they are good creations. Furthermore, humans are given responsibility to rule over and manage the Earth. So isn’t it obvious that we should work hard to use our powers to preserve all species?

It’s easy jump to a yes at this point. Creatures are good, and according to our duty to take care of the planet, we should save endangered species. However, the reality isn’t so simple. I think that science offers some information we need to make an informed opinion here.

Earth is quickly losing biodiversity at present, but this isn’t the first time this has happened. In fact, the planet’s geological history shows 5 separate mass extinction events happening before the present. The one we probably hear about most is the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and many other species. But that isn’t even the biggest extinction in Earth’s history!

Amount of biodiversity on Earth through the history of life. absolute levels of biodiversity look lower in earlier periods, but that may be due to fewer fossils surviving from then. What is clear are 5 major drops in diversity.
Amount of biodiversity on Earth through the history of life. Absolute levels of biodiversity look lower in earlier periods, but that may be due to fewer fossils surviving from then. What is clear are 5 major drops in diversity. (Source)

Have a look at the above graph. The arrow pointing to the “Late Cretaceous” drop is the extinction event that infamously killed the dinosaurs. It’s a pretty big drop, but not the biggest. That award goes to the “Late Permian” extinction, which killed off a whopping 96% of all species on the planet! That’s quite the blow of biodiversity to recover from, but recovering is just what happened.

After every major extinction, the Earth’s biodiversity has always recovered. We understand pretty well that through the process of evolution new species arise. New life forms always emerge to take the place of old ones that go extinct. Our own form of life, mammals, seem to have used this opportunity. Mammals became more common precisely because other species like the dinosaurs weren’t around anymore to compete with.

This is the natural order of things: species come and species go. Even outside of major extinction events, there are always some species going extinct and others newly arising. That fact sounds downright ecclesiastical to me: “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the Earth remains forever” (ESV Ecclesiastes 1:4). Extinction isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and is part of the natural creative process of the evolution of biodiversity.

That’s not to say that extinction is always OK either. We don’t just have the responsibility to maintain the Earth as a very nice zoo, but we depend on biodiversity for our very survival. To survive, we need oxygen to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and low enough levels of dangerous chemicals like hydrogen sulfide around to not kill us. Not to mention how much of our economy depends on harvesting wildlife like fish, or growing crops. These are all services and supplies provided for us by the current balance of ecosystems around the world. Unfortunately, we’re more than capable of upsetting that balance.

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A classic example is the crash of Atlantic Cod populations after decades of over-fishing. In the above graph, you can see that around 1965, over 800,000 tons of Atlantic cod were being harvested per year. That’s an enormous amount of food supply for us humans, not to mention the economic value to us! Atlantic cod are not extinct yet, but the population has crashed and has yet to recover. It seems that the balance of the ecosystem here has shifted indefinitely.

And that’s just one example of species prevalence affecting us. In recent years, bee colonies have been disappearing, which is certainly a threat to our food supplies. For decades now, toxic algae blooms have been poisoning life in our oceans and lakes due to chemical runoff from human activity and climate change. That’s just two more examples, but there are many possible ways for the situation on Earth to go terribly wrong. If these sorts of problems are not managed, the result could only be catastrophic death and suffering for human and animal life. I don’t think there is any debate that we have a responsibility to avoid that kind of outcome.

So there are probably endangered species we can afford to lose, and will just get replaced by new species over time. There are definitely other species that would cause big problems for us if they go extinct. It may be tempting at this point to think that we could just focus on managing the species that are important to us, but things aren’t so simple. Unfortunately for that plan, life exists in tangled webs of ecosystems and depend on each other to survive, and we only know so much about how those webs are connected.

What we do know is that rapid change is dangerous. All of those mass extinctions in Earth’s history were a result of big changes happening quickly: things like enormous asteroid impacts, poison gasses building up in the air, or out of control volcanic activity. The biggest threats to human and animal life and well-being are likely large-scale habitat destruction and human-induced climate change at the moment. If we lose lots of biodiversity quickly, there is a high risk of losing species important to our survival. Not to mention the general increase in death and suffering that major extinction events bring.

A Balanced View

Life is good, and biodiversity is both wonderful and useful to us. Loss of species can be sad, and if it is an important type of creature, it may even risk our health or well-being. But not all species loss is a terrible thing, and some is part of the normal creative process of new life forms evolving. Should we let a particular endangered species go extinct? Maybe it doesn’t matter, depending on the species. The best thing we can do for  all life is to try to manage the Earth to be as slow to change as possible. From a Christian perspective, I think this fits well with our call to be peacemakers as responsible rulers of this planet we depend on.