The human instruction manual
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalm 139:13-16
A few months back my friend Ryan and I were having a lunch meeting with a colleague who works in the field of genomics, which is a scientific approach to trying to understand life from the information we glean from DNA. We sat outside on the deck of a new multi-million dollar facility in La Jolla overlooking the Pacific Ocean, enjoying both the view and the conversation. Just behind and a little above us was the boss’ office, a fishbowl designed to make the most of the views in all directions. “The Boss” is a man named J. Craig Venter, an ingenious scientist and businessman best known for his work teasing out all the billions of As and Ts and Cs and Gs of the human genome in the 1990s.
But because Dr. Venter’s operation was private and for-profit, the US government quickly assembled a team led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to do the very same thing. The difference would be that the government-led project would make all of the genetic data freely available to the scientific community and the general public immediately and at no charge. As their leader they chose none other than the pioneering geneticist Dr. Francis Collins.
The race to crack the human genetic code was on, and the press loved every minute of it. What would it reveal? What diseases would we be instantly able to eliminate? What would we learn about human ancestry? The questions seemed boundless.
In June of 2000, President Bill Clinton stood alongside the two scientists to announce to the world that, after ten years, billions of dollars, and the contributions of thousands of scientists, the first sequences of the human genome had been determined.
Collins, a Christian, later wrote, “This book [the human genome] was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe in surveying this most significant of all biological texts.”1
Making sense of that much data takes time and finesse, and is still underway today, more than 14 years later.
But some things we have learned so far from our instruction manual have been very enlightening. For example, our genome consists of approximately three billion nucleotide pairs distributed across 46 chromosomes. Each chromosome, several centimeters in length, contains the information for hundreds to thousands of genes. The current estimate is that our DNA encodes about 20,000-25,000 different genes, most of which we do not yet understand.
About 97% of the nucleotide pairs do not appear to be part of a recognizable gene unit. However, we are discovering that what was originally dubbed “junk DNA” appears to play various other roles besides directing protein synthesis. One lesson from the human genome project seems to be that we understand our DNA far less than we think.
One of the more exciting possibilities from the human genome is what has often been called personalized medicine. By understanding our own personal genomes (which can now be sequenced for under $1000 (http://www.nature.com/news/is-the-1-000-genome-for-real-1.14530), although the availability is tied up in courts over ethical considerations (https://www.23andme.com/)), scientists hope to be able to predict some diseases before they present themselves. They also hope to be able to customize medical treatments, such as specific medications, that would have the greatest possibility of success for specific patients based on their specific genome variations.
As a medical doctor, Collins is unable to hide his enthusiasm for the potential represented in the human genome: “For me as a physician, the possibility of laying open the pages of this most powerful textbook of medicine was extremely compelling.”1
As a Christian, Collins saw his work unveiling the human genome as an honor and a privilege: “It’s a happy day for the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”1
This glimpse into our genomes the Lord has allowed reminds us that we are intentional, loved, and indeed wonderful.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. Psalm 139:14
Questions for thought
Why do you think God has chosen this generation, now of all times, to reveal to us this most ancient of all texts, the human genome?
How can this new understanding of biological life impact the quality of human life across the globe?
How can this new understanding of biological life impact our understanding of the Creator?
Lord God, your strategy for communicating biological life into being leaves us speechless. The more we learn, the more we are humbled by how complex is your creation and how little we understand it. May we use this new understanding to serve and honor you. In your name, amen.