Almost exactly two centuries ago, 18-year-old Mary Shelley wrote a story about a German scientist named Victor Frankenstein creating life. In the story, Frankenstein assembled body parts from cadavers—it being considered too difficult to reconstruct them from scratch—which he then attempted to reanimate with electricity.
Ironically, the subject of scientists creating life has arisen again. But today’s scientists have gone far beyond Frankenstein’s ambitions. If Mary Shelley could see what scientists are doing today, she’d be amazed. Yet some of these developments are so routine that we take them for granted.
Reanimation of a corpse using electricity may still seem far-fetched, until we consider that something like it has become commonplace. Patients whose hearts have stopped beating are literally shocked back to life on a daily basis in emergency rooms and operating theaters. In fact, you can purchase a defibrillator for use at home! There are even some surgical procedures where the person’s heart is intentionally stopped, only to be started again later.
Harvesting organs for transplantation, even from a cadaver, has also become commonplace. In fact, scientists are taking this a step further. Doris Taylor, director of regenerative medicine research at the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas, has been working on “ghost hearts.” A ghost heart is the heart of a rat or a pig that has been soaked in a solution that washes away everything except what is called a “protein scaffold,” the physical framework of the organ. Then blood or stem cells from a living donor are injected into the “ghost heart,” which is then placed in a bioreactor—an apparatus that pumps blood and oxygen into the living cells—and lo and behold, after several days, the heart begins to beat!
So far, Dr. Taylor has done this only with rat and pig hearts, but it seems likely that someday soon she will be able to take a heart from a human cadaver, wash away the organic cells, repopulate it with blood or stem cells from a living donor who needs a transplant, and produce a living human heart. Since the heart would be populated with the recipient’s own cells, there would be no danger of rejection and no need for continued use of antirejection drugs.
Doctors hope to eventually be able to produce hearts, livers, pancreases, kidneys, and even lungs—and all of them free from the dangers of rejection or the need to suppress the immune system. Indeed, this is not just about the future.
In 2008, a 30-year-old female received a new trachea that was grown using the InBreath bioreactor created by Harvard Apparatus Regenerative Technology (HART), marking the first regenerative organ transplant surgery. Five years later, she was doing well. “She has an excellent quality of life,” says David Green, CEO of HART in Holiston, Massachusetts. “She has a family and a job. It’s really hard to imagine a better clinical outcome.”
And she isn’t the only one. In 2011, a man with inoperable cancer of the trachea was given only two weeks to live. But using the patient’s own cells, physicians generated a new trachea for the man. They then removed the diseased trachea and replaced it with the newly generated organ, and instead of dying, at last report the man was still alive and well. Impressive as these developments are, however, they involve only reusing living tissue, not the actual creation of life.
However, scientists are going beyond living tissue to DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the very building block of life. Every living thing contains DNA, which forms what is called a double helix—essentially a twisting ladder. Each “rung” on the DNA ladder connects what scientists call a “base pair” made up of four chemicals designated with the letters C, G, A, and T. They are pairs because a C always connects to a G and an A always pairs with a T. They can pair in either order, that is, a C on the left and a G on the right, or vice versa. The same goes for the A and the T. This DNA ladder contains the information that directs the growth and development of every aspect of an organism. Your DNA determined your eye and hair color, your approximate height, the size of your vocal cords—every tiny detail of every cell.
After half a century of experimentation, scientists are just now learning how to isolate that twisted ladder, clip a section out, and insert a new section in its place, thus altering the ladder and modifying what the ladder produces. They can also build ladders from scratch, using the four chemicals for base pairs. This amazing and complex process is called “sequencing,” and it comes very close to what we would consider creating life.
For example, a research team led by Craig Venter of America’s J. Craig Venter Institute has successfully produced the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. “This is the first synthetic cell that’s been made,” Venter said, “and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer.”
This remarkable accomplishment is the culmination of a nearly 15-year project. To accomplish it, the Venter Institute partnered with another company that synthesized the DNA. The whole process required multiple steps. They began with the genetic “blueprint” of an existing bacterium. They then designed a plan that would create a sequence of genes considered nonessential and replaced them with the desired changes plus a “watermark” sequence to verify that these new cells were in fact modified according to the plan.
This was submitted to the partner company, which synthesized more than 1,000 base pairs—in other words, a DNA ladder with more than 1,000 rungs. In an incredibly complex series of procedures, these new ladders were replicated using a form of yeast, then linked up with other synthesized DNA ladders of similar size, replicated again, and so on, until finally it was all combined into one final DNA sequence containing more than 1 million base pairs—a ladder with 1 million rungs!
As Dr. Hutchinson, who was part of the team, said, “To me the most remarkable thing about our synthetic cell is that its genome was designed in the computer and brought to life through chemical synthesis, without using any pieces of natural DNA.”
It’s an amazing achievement that required innumerable calculations, sophisticated computer programming, and precise technical expertise. When one considers all the intelligence, skill, and ingenuity that went into this accomplishment, the notion that life, even the simplest life, might have been generated randomly through a series of accidents seems preposterous.
We should not be surprised. Albert Einstein said, “Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to man, and one in the face of which our modest powers must feel humble.”
The Bible’s account describes just such an intelligence in action in the creation of life. It’s fashionable today to regard the Genesis story of creation as something primitive and fanciful, like a fairy tale. Indeed, it’s often characterized as just one among a collection of ancient Near Eastern creation fables and myths.
But the Genesis creation story is nothing like a fable or a myth. On the contrary, it proceeds systematically, with a minimum of description. In the English translation, the Genesis creation account takes up slightly more than 200 words. It almost reads like a manufacturing process. Genesis 1:1 declares that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” that is to say, the inanimate universe as we know it. And this He created “ex nihilo”—out of nothing. When this occurred is not specified. All we know is that it happened before the events described in the Creation week. On that day, we begin with what is essentially a blank planet.
• Day 1: God created light, for without light, life as we know it isn’t possible. Light is essential for our existence, as is the day/night cycle, which was also established on the first day.
• Day 2: God separated the waters. Life as we know it requires several things: light, which we’ve already mentioned, some form of oxygen, and water. On the second day the water in the oceans and lakes was separated from the water in the atmosphere. It was the air (“firmament,” KJV) that was created on this day. So far, we have the basics necessary for life: light, water, and an atmosphere, containing oxygen.
• Day 3: Dry land appeared, along with vegetation—the first form of life mentioned in the Creation account. Notice how each of the building blocks for a living environment was provided systematically, one after another.
• Day 4: The lights in the sky—sun, moon, and stars—were appointed to “rule” the day and night. They were given, according to the narrative, “to mark seasons and days and years” (verse 14). We take these things for granted, but the seasons are necessary for the orderly development and growth of plants and, to a lesser degree, for animals as well. Vegetation had been created the day before, and then the lights to regulate that plant life. Now that vegetation, the food that animal life requires, was available, God was ready for the next step.
• Day 5: Both aquatic and avian life were created on this day. Because of the systematic nature of the previous days of Creation, both types of life had a ready-made ecosystem.
• Day 6: Now we come to land animals and, in a special ceremony, human beings. Once again, we see that they came into a completed ecosystem that was ready to receive them.
• Day 7: Finally, there’s the Sabbath. Human beings must exist in relationships. The Sabbath provides a time for humans to relate to creation, to one another, and to their Creator.
The Genesis account depicts an intelligent, methodical, and orderly sequence of creation. And it’s because God is a God of order that human beings can be scientific. C. S. Lewis explained this beautifully: “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.”
Has science created life from scratch? No. All life, all science, originates with God.
As Dr. Venter himself made clear, “We created a new cell. It’s alive. But we didn’t create life from scratch. We created, as all life on this planet is, out of a living cell.”
And, as their actions prove, all these scientists, whether they profess to believe in God or not, believe in the laws of science, and therefore they tacitly pay tribute to the Lawgiver.