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Can I make human heart proteins in a mouse?

Or, restated: Can I make a mouse that produces a human heart protein?

The first question is clearly a technical question that focuses on our ability to express human genes in a new context. The second gives clarity to what it is that I am actually making—a new kind of mouse. Although this is still a technical question, it ought to give me a little bit of pause as I consider not only whether I can make such a mouse, but should I be in the business of “making” mice at all.

While teaching a cell biology course for the first time this semester, I (Clayton) have encountered anew the sweeping history of molecular biology. Our text (Karp’s Cell & Molecular Biology) gives special attention to important experiments and scientists from history who made the discoveries that have become textbook answers. An international community of scientists has worked furiously over the last one hundred-plus years to unlock the secrets of cellular science. I am grateful that our text gives space to the scientific history that science students so rarely receive.

But our textbook largely ignores an important reality embedded in my opening question. The topics we study and teach have moral histories too. Questions like, “Should we?” “If we do, how should we?” and “Would it be fair if?” are made every day based on some set of ethics. Unfortunately, outside of examples regarding serious historical injustices (e.g. Tuskegee Syphilis Study), those moral histories are too often ignored.

Matthew Cobb’s book As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age explores ways in which the initial exploration of genetics and molecular biology has been rife with ethical complexity. The main subject of his book is comprised of the history of genetic engineering with special attention given to the key moments of moral consideration. The author’s journey through this account of the past includes a subtle voice of concern throughout the entirety of the text. This undercurrent of concern steadily builds until the final chapters in which his once subtle voice grows forceful. There, he expresses his critique of what he sees as reckless behavior that has been displayed through the adoption of genetic engineering. In particular, he rebukes the use of genetic engineering on human embryos, writing, “There really does not seem to be much point to germline editing at all, no matter how enthusiastic some boneheaded scientists, ambitious physicians and tedious transhumanists might be about the prospect.” 1

As told by Cobb, it is clear that the sole consistent ethical standard that has been utilized throughout the history of genetic engineering is safety. Four times in this field (and zero times in all other fields) researchers have voluntarily paused their work out of concern for what might be discovered. Nineteen seventy-one was the first time DNA from bacteria and viruses were about to be mixed. In 1974 the field was concerned about how new technical advances could make these processes widespread. In 2012 virologists voluntarily stopped making mutations to the H5N1 strain of influenza. And most recently, in 2019, all the leading experts in CRISPR technology called for a 5-year ban on human editing.

But in every example, it was primarily fear that what was being done would be unsafe or cause harm that paused the field. Would bacteria modified by viruses cause cancer in humans? Would mutated H5N1 set off a pandemic? Would gene-edited embryos be accidentally mutated in the process? Over and over again the only question granted the floor was technical in nature: How can we do this safely?

Once safety concerns are addressed, researchers get back to work editing genes and programming genomes. Always, “Can I make human heart proteins in a mouse,” and never “Should I make a mouse?” Although safety is certainly important, we want both of those questions to be evaluated by a more robust ethic. This need is why all science students need a liberal arts education and why the world desperately needs scientists of faith trained in Christian liberal arts.

Search the scriptures as we might, neither Paul nor Jesus had much to say about genetic engineering. But through scripture, theology, Christian philosophy, and the rest of the humanities, students who receive this education can be reminded of three core principles that will shape what questions these future researchers ask.

First, scientists trained in Christian liberal arts will remember that this is God’s good world, not ours. We are not the masters of this world, entitled to use it and its inhabitants in any way that we please. But neither are we invaders, prohibited from making any interventions into the “natural” way things work. Humans are stewards of God’s world. We are called to care for creation and for creatures in a way that honors their Maker. Any scientific intervention we undertake should be consistent with the One in whose name we do the work.

Second, scientists trained in the Christian liberal arts tradition will always know that human beings are made in God’s Image. Humans are made of matter, constructed of cells, and classified as mammals and animals, but we are something more. We have a nature, a relationship, and a role that sets us apart from the rest of creation. What may be ethical when performed on a mouse zygote may not be ethical when performed on a human zygote, even if the genes in those two zygotes are 85% identical. Humans are of course animals, but we are not just animals—we are image bearers of God. Intervening in the human body is the role of all medicine, and some molecular interventions are likely warranted, but we need to approach this work with humility and caution, like cleaning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We do not own the masterpieces on which we work but are only caretakers for the Master who has made them.

Finally, scientists trained in Christian Liberal Arts should know that Christ calls us to live an abundant life (John 10:10). As evidenced by a God who frees the slaves from Egypt, a Son who heals and saves the sick, and a Spirit that makes one family out of many, ours is a God who brings life—not just continued existence but also health, connection, community, and flourishing. When considering genetic engineering, we should ask ourselves if the intervention planned will bring connection, community, flourishing, and health. If so, then (with humility and caution) it should be considered.

Ideally students would make these connections on their own between their liberal arts courses and the content of their Cell and Molecular Biology courses. But it is even better when the instructor teaches both how an experiment can be done and opens discussion as to whether that same experiment should be done. Science faculty are trained to check in to see if students are connecting today’s content to what was covered last week but we need to be more comfortable asking students how today’s content connects to what was learned across campus.

The next generation of scientists will be the ones who edit the human genome, reprogram our crops, and fight the next pandemic. The Christian liberal arts may be the best resource available to train them to not only address the technical problems in the work but also to faithfully take up the right questions about how we should honor God and all God’s creatures.


  1. Matthew Cobb, As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age (New York: Basic Books, 2022), 282.

Clayton D. Carlson

Trinity Christian College
Clayton D. Carlson is a professor of biology at Trinity Christian College.  

Moriah Avila

Moriah is a student of biology at Trinity Christian College working toward a career in law.