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December 24, 1999

Should scientists play God by creating life? Colin Humphreys, a Christian, says that depends on what they do with it.

The American scientist Craig Venter recently proposed creating life in a test tube. Some American Christian groups have demanded legislation to ban such experiments. What are the scientific facts? What are the ethical implications? Should Christians oppose this research?

What are the facts? Venter is a well-known biologist who is the president of Celera Genomics Corporation, a commercial organisation set up to sequence the human genome. His latest proposal is based on an existing simple organism, a parasite called Mycoplasma genitalia that, as the name suggests, dwells in human reproductive organs. The parasite has only 470 genes and Venter plans to identify those genes that are essential for reproduction, which he believes will probably be about 300. He then proposes to assemble these 300 genes to produce a living organism that will replicate itself.

The project appears to be scientifically feasible. Venter says that he will not go ahead with the experiment until religious leaders and ethicists consider the moral questions involved.

What are the ethical implications? First, it seems to me that the proposal of Venter is not to create life but to copy and modify an existing life form.

So what is proposed is very similar to existing research on the genetic modification of plants and animals, which creates "new" forms of life, which is in itself somewhat similar to the new plants and animals produced by the selective breeding that scientists have practised for centuries. Like much scientific research, the results can be used for good or bad purposes.

In the short term (less than five years say), the research proposed by Venter will be of purely scientific interest. But in the longer term the research and the techniques developed have potential for good, like other forms of genetic engineering, because they will be able to identify all the genes that are essential for increasingly complex living systems. This research should therefore be encouraged.

On the other hand, there is the potential to create harmful organisms and hence Venter's proposal, like other genetic engineering research, needs to be carefully monitored by independent committees established by governments with the power to recommend legislation if necessary.

Should Christians oppose this research? The Bible does not, of course, comment on creating new forms of life because this was not possible at the time it was written, although the domestication of animals and some form of selective breeding of plants and animals would have been practised at the time. The Bible accepts this and mankind is encouraged to look after animals in a responsible way. Christians therefore have to apply the general principles of biblical teaching to the ethical questions arising from Venter's proposal.

My belief is that the Christian position on this issue is the same as that of responsible non-believers, namely that research that has the potential for good should be encouraged and research that has the potential for bad should be banned. These are not easy decisions of course, which is why careful monitoring is essential, but I would not stop Venter's proposal at this stage.

Although I believe there is no distinctively different Christian view on creating new forms of life, where the Christian view differs from that of non-believers is on the meaning of life, especially the meaning of human life. Amid the crackers and champagne spare a thought for the significance of the first Christmas, 2,000 years ago (approximately!).

HAM KHAN Colin Humphreys is Goldsmiths' professor of materials science, University of Cambridge. He is a Christian.

Should scientists play God by

creating life? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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