KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–After six years in the spotlight as the most famous sheep in the world, Dolly — the first mammal cloned from adult DNA — developed a lung disease and was put to death. Sheep commonly live 10-12 years. Researchers associated with the Roslin Institute, the organization which cloned Dolly, believe she contracted the disease from other sheep on their campus.
Early on, researchers were concerned Dolly might show premature signs of aging. And in fact, the Roslin Institute announced in January 2002 that she indeed had developed arthritis early, at five and half years of age. Scientists also discovered that Dolly’s telomeres — the stabilizing caps at the ends of chromosomes — were approximately 20 percent shorter than other sheep of a similar age. Telomeres are important because they impose a kind of limit on the number of times a particular strand of DNA can replicate, thus they contribute to issues surrounding the life span of an organism.
Scientists will examine the death of Dolly to determine exactly why she died and what, if any, contribution the cloning process made to her early demise.
What should not be missed, however, is obvious: Dolly died. This most elementary fact is vital because Dolly’s birth has sparked discussion about the possibility of using cloning procedures to extend life. Specifically, many scientists hope they can “clone” certain cells and grow organs for transplantation.
Ian Wilmut, one of the primary researchers associated with Dolly, reflects the optimism associated with genetic technology in general when he explains, “Genetic engineers have a precision … that traditional breeders lack; they can add just one gene at a time, or they can take out individual genes, or take them out and alter them and put them back, or indeed (in principle) create genes artificially that have never existed in nature.”
While many evangelical critiques of cloning have focused on the potential for abuse of power associated with the procedure, we should also focus on the secular view of life and death related to the procedure. As Christians, we affirm that, barring the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, death is inevitable. Hebrews 9:27 states man is “destined to die once” and after this to face the judgment. The Psalmist, noting the brevity of life, says, “Each man’s life is but a breath” (Psalm 39:5). Should it become possible for genetic technologies to extend the average life span significantly, this only prolongs the inevitable.
Modern infatuation with genetic technologies also demonstrates that many people see humans as chemical machines. In contrast, Christians affirm that we are more than the sum of our DNA: we have a soul.
Though we may die, the soul indeed lives on awaiting the resurrection. The most modern genetic techniques did not grant immortality to Dolly and they will not be able to grant immortality to humans. Should Christ tarry his return, I will die as well. Thankfully, Christ has promised us, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”
Branch is vice president for student development at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.