Dolly—arguably the most famous sheep in world history—was born 20 years ago, on July 5, 1996. She was the first mammal ever to be cloned as an exact genetic copy of her mother, and born healthy. The scientific community and news headlines hailed the breakthrough and postulated that now human cloning would rapidly follow. Is that prospect something humankind should be sheepish about when we consider the potential dangers, or does it offer a solution to human mortality?
The ethical dilemma of this possible next step caused many to pause for thought, both at the moral implications and the impact on future generations. What can we learn looking back, 20 years on from the creation of Dolly?
Dolly's birth is considered one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs ever, with its key goal of developing new methods to genetically modify animals. Dolly technically had three mothers; one to provide the DNA, one the egg and one as a surrogate to carry the embryo. Biologists used a process called "somatic cell nuclear transfer" to create a viable embryo from a body (somatic) cell and an egg cell using a technique called reproductive cloning. Dolly's birth at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland was a well-kept secret until February 1997 when she was announced to the world.
As a media celebrity, Dolly had a productive life. She was mother to six lambs—first a single birth, then twins, followed by triplets. She developed arthritis in later life and died in February 2003 of progressive lung disease, which is fairly common to sheep kept indoors. Dolly was not allowed to run free outside for fear she would be "sheep-napped." There was some unfounded speculation that Dolly died prematurely after six years because her source DNA was already six years old when she was cloned. Dolly was the only lamb that survived to adulthood out of 277 cloning attempts, a success ratio that has improved dramatically in the last two decades as cloning techniques have grown more efficient.
The main debate since Dolly was born has involved the ethics of potential human cloning—a process that has been initiated with embryos using the same process as Dolly, but not yet carried through to birth. The high failure rate puts off many scientists for moral reasons. They consider the 1 percent chance of success for a viable human with poor health too high a price to pay. Yet the field of cloning is moving ahead at an ever-increasing rate—another example of mankind's ability to expand knowledge, unique among all created beings (Daniel 12:4; Genesis 11:6). How can we expect lawmakers to stay on top of regulating this dangerous and morally fraught field?
Despite the concerns, some scientists see cloning as a beneficial tool, even as a potential way to prolong human life. This should not surprise us; after all, those inquisitive scientists are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27) with fruitful and active minds eager to explore scientific possibilities, even if beyond our human capacity or morality to govern. These scientists envision cloning ourselves in later life and then somehow transferring by brain mapping our memories and experiences into a younger copy ("Obama proposes brain mapping project," BBC.com, April 2, 2013). Then the "younger you" could live a lifetime before doing it all over again, with backup copies of yourself in the deep freeze.
The UK has been at the pioneering frontier of genomic research in recent years. In February 2015 the UK legalized the creation of human embryos with three biological parents. When mothers who have a known genetic condition undergo in-vitro fertilization treatment, they can have part of their mitochondrial genetic code replaced by a third person's, so the child is born healthy. Yet even though just 0.1 percent of the baby's genetic code comes from other than the biological mother and father, this effectively means the child is the genetic offspring of three parents!
In November 2015 New Scientist magazine reported that the new and rapidly advancing science of gene editing had been used to save Layla, a one-year-old leukemia patient from London. Doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital used genetically modified immune cells from a donor to kill the cancerous cells in Layla's bone marrow.
In January 2016 the UK government became the first to consider—and, momentously, approve—gene editing on human embryos up to seven days old, which would later be destroyed. This technology is so new that governments, policy makers and ethicists are struggling to keep up with how to regulate it. The first-ever summit on Genome Editing took place in December 2015 in Washington, DC. The powerful gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 is said to offer huge promise to advance science and treat disease. However, according to the Web site of Innovative Genomics Initiative (an initiative set up to enhance genome editing): "These technologies also raise concerns and present complex challenges, particularly because of their potential to be used to make genetic changes that could be passed on to future generations, thereby modifying the human germline." Your germline is the genetic information you pass on to your children, grandchildren and beyond. Will we clone ourselves and risk introducing a dangerous genetic mutation of our own creation into the human genome?
The Creator God designed us to have two parents (Genesis 1:27, 28) with half our DNA coming from each. The process of reproduction introduces randomness and provides endless possibilities for the new life at conception. We are certainly "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). Cloning, on the other hand, is an exact copy of the original DNA from one parent, which is not how God designed reproduction to work. It was never God's intent for man to be created by cloning from pre-existing DNA.
As humans we are mortal (Hebrews 9:27). Without Christ we would face ultimate death as a result of sin, which we have all committed (Romans 5:12; 6:23). Scripture reveals how, amazingly, God intends to reproduce Himself. It requires our voluntary submission, repentance and baptism to receive, in essence, God's DNA. The Apostle John tells us that one who has been begotten (gennao, commonly mistranslated as "born") of God, having received God's Spirit—the very "seed" (Greek sperma) of God—will not practice sin (1 John 3:9). Yes, when a repentant individual is baptised and then receives the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands by Christ's ministry, the conception of a new creation has taken place (Acts 8:14–17)!
God wants us to become part of His family, a process He initiates by begetting us with His Holy Spirit; His seed. He designed the miraculous process by which we reproduce physically. Mankind is already taking the difficult and potentially dangerous steps to clone itself, as current research far surpasses the milestone of Dolly. But cloning is not the solution to our mortality—God is offering us immortality in His own, perfect way.