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Scientists call for moratorium on germline editing

Christian bioethicists say the proposal doesn’t go far enough

A scientist conducts a gene-editing experiment at a lab in Shenzhen in southern China in October 2018. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

Scientists call for moratorium on germline editing

A group of prominent scientists and bioethicists from seven countries published an editorial in the journal Nature last week calling for a worldwide moratorium on heritable genome editing. They want to prevent any more of their peers from engineering gene-edited babies like Chinese scientist He Jiankui did last year, but Christian ethicists say the proposal falls short.

Heritable genome editing, or germline editing, refers to modifying the genes in sperm, eggs, or embryos, resulting in genetic changes that future generations can inherit. The authors of the Nature editorial say science needs to establish the safety of gene-editing procedures before allowing them because of the high risk of introducing unintended, off-target mutations. Modifying a gene to reduce the risk of a certain disease can often increase the risk of other diseases. Changing a common gene mutation to decrease the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, for instance, also increases the risk of schizophrenia, Crohn’s disease, and obesity.

The scientists want nations to agree voluntarily to outlaw any germline editing until scientific, medical, ethical, and moral issues are considered and international guidelines developed. The proposed moratorium does not include gene editing in nonreproductive cells because such procedures do not involve changes that would affect future generations. It also would not ban germline editing for research purposes that do not include implantation of modified embryos.

While a moratorium may represent a step in the right direction, it does nothing to protect human embryos from destruction in research labs or address the problems of tampering with God’s design for the human race. David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, called the proposal disappointingly shortsighted.

“Scientifically unsound and ethically problematic experiments on human embryos, including creating gene-edited embryos in the lab and then destroying them, would still be allowed and even encouraged,” he told me. “We call instead for the full prohibition of gene-editing experiments on embryos or germ cells—not just a speed bump.”

Other scientists, such as Helen O’Neill, a molecular geneticist at University College London, also spoke out against the moratorium for different reasons. She said a worldwide ban is unnecessary because many countries forbid human germline editing, and she worries a formal moratorium could restrict research funding, according to Science Media Centre.

But Jing-Bao Nie, one of the editorial’s signatories, noted that the Chinese scientist He produced the gene-edited babies despite regulations. The inadequacy of the Chinese and international responses to the unethical experiment concerns him the most, Nie said in a statement: “By putting blame completely on the rogue scientist individually, the institutional failings are overlooked.”

The editorial’s authors further note the dangers of genetic editing meant only for enhancement, such as modifications to improve memory or muscle strength or even to introduce new biological functions like the ability to see infrared light. Gene editing for enhancement could make parents feel pressured to use the technology to give their children a competitive edge, could put poorer parents who can’t afford the procedure at a disadvantage, and could cause both physical and psychological harm to children. “Genetic enhancement could even divide humans into subspecies,” they wrote.


Similar but different

A set of twins, one boy and one girl, born in Australia are only the second documented case of semi-identical twins ever recorded. They were born in 2014, but their case study just appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine on Feb. 28.

Semi-identical twins result when two of the father’s sperm fertilize one of the mother’s eggs before it splits, resulting in three sets of chromosomes, one from the mother and two from the father.

In this case, the mother’s ultrasound at six weeks of gestation showed a single placenta, and positioning of the amniotic sacs indicated identical twins. But at 14 weeks a second ultrasound showed one male and one female baby, an impossibility for identical twins. Doctors determined that the fertilized egg equally divided the three sets of chromosomes into groups of cells that then split, creating two babies. “Some of the cells contain the chromosomes from the first sperm while the remaining cells contain chromosomes from the second sperm, resulting in the twins sharing only a proportion, rather [than] 100 percent, of the same paternal DNA,” Michael Gabbett, a physician on the medical team, said in a statement.

Physicians first reported a case of semi-identical twins in 2007, when doctors discovered the babies had ambiguous genitalia. DNA analysis showed that the twins, a boy and a girl, shared identical DNA from their mother but only about half of their father’s DNA. —J.B.


A princess evangelist

Archaeologists have unearthed what might be the monastery of Princess Aebbe, a pagan who converted to Christianity and spread the faith along the northeastern coast of Britain in the seventh century.

The archaeological group DigVentures found evidence of a vast circular ditch, likely representing the boundary that surrounded Aebbe’s religious settlement. Just outside the boundary, the scientists discovered a huge pile of butchered animal bones dating to A.D. 660–680, coinciding with the time Aebbe’s monastery existed.

According to historical records, Aebbe’s father, a Northumbrian warlord king in northeastern England, was killed, and she and her siblings escaped to a Gaelic kingdom that was a hub of ancient Christianity. Aebbe soon converted and became a nun. When her brother Oswald returned to Northumbria to reclaim the family throne, she went with him on a shared mission to spread Christianity to the largely pagan population and established the monastery at Coldingham in southeast Scotland. She died in 668, and Viking raiders burned the monastery two years later. It was rebuilt and thrived for another 200 years until Vikings destroyed it again.

Aebbe could have been a very eligible bride, but she wanted none of it. Tradition says she once prayed fervently that she would not be forced to marry a certain prince who was pursuing her. Her prayers were answered when floodwaters rose up and prevented him from coming to her for three days, after which he gave up. —J.B.


Whale of a tale

Rainer Schimpf was not trying to avoid going to Nineveh like the Bible’s Jonah, but the dive tour operator did recently find himself trapped inside the mouth of a whale.

Schimpf was in the water photographing a mass of sardines off the coast of South Africa when suddenly everything went dark and he felt unusual pressure on his hip. He quickly realized the upper half of his body was trapped inside the mouth of a giant whale.

“There is no time for fear in a situation like that, you have to use your instincts,” he said in a YouTube video. Schimpf held his breath, expecting the whale would dive down much deeper in the ocean before releasing him. But then he felt the whale turn and the pressure release, and he was washed out of the animal’s mouth.

The whale was a Bryde’s whale, common throughout tropical and subtropical waters. They average 43 to 45 feet in length and can weigh up to 45 tons. Schimpf was never in danger of being ingested because the throat of a Bryde’s whale is too small to swallow a human, Uko Gorter, president of the American Cetacean Society, told Live Science. Bryde’s whales sift small fish, plankton, and squid out of the water using baleen and have no teeth. Schimpf said he was not seriously injured and went back in the water the same day to keep taking photos. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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