When Jesus Was an Embryo

Embryo mouse days 1 to 4 Dr M. Zernicka-Goetz, Gurdon Institute Wellcome images
Mouse embryo, days 1 to 4 © Dr M. Zernicka-Goetz, Gurdon Institute. Wellcome images

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)

“He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Phil 2:7)

As one who has used some of the techniques of developmental biology, I have a rather different perspective on Advent to most people. Long before that famous journey to Bethlehem, before Mary was accused of adultery, and before Joseph married his pregnant betrothed, Jesus became an embryo. Read more

Guest Post: A wonderful, humbling, vocation

Zebrabow
Zebrafish spinal cord © Tom Hiscock

My day-to-day work as a research scientist involves looking down microscopes at developing organisms, reading papers about the latest discoveries in developmental biology and meeting colleagues and collaborators to discuss new ideas. It is a job that I love!

It is also a job that I find closely aligned with my values and vocation as a Christian. However, this is a more of a general feeling that I have, rather than something that I have thought about directly. Indeed, although I sense that my scientific and faith journeys are somehow intertwined, they rarely overlap directly. Continue reading

Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom

frog-3428988_1920 pixabay crop
Pixabay

For me as a biologist, evolutionary and developmental biology – evo devo for short – is one of the most wonderful, illuminating, useful areas of study. In the last few decades we have gone from guessing at how things might have evolved, to having some actual mechanisms of how organs, and even whole organisms, can change. As a Christian, I am interested in this subject first of all because it’s fascinating. Having been freed by Biblical Scholars from feeling that I need to read the Bible as a science book, I can now go and explore God’s world using the tools of science, thanking him for all the incredible things I find. Secondly, this knowledge is incredibly useful. The more we learn about how our bodies develop and grow, the more we can treat disease. Continue reading

Embryos are beautiful

Crawling C. elegans. Goldstein lab, http://labs.bio.unc.edu/Goldstein/movies.html

This is the message that developmental biologist Jeff Hardin tries to get across to his students. Hardin constantly sees beauty in his work, so I thought I would spend some time explaining what he does. 

One of the best tools for studying development is the tiny roundworm C.elegans, which must be one of the most studied organisms in the world. Adult humans have around 30 trillion cells in their bodies, but human development is so complex and our bodies are so large and vary so much in size, that estimates vary from 10 to 100 trillion. C.elegans, on the other hand, is a relatively simple organism with about 1,000 cells.

One of the most striking (and useful) things about C. elegans is the ‘invariant lineage’ of its cells. As the embryo grows, development proceeds along a minutely prescribed pattern. A cell in the growing embryo replicates its DNA and divides in two. The ‘daughter cell’ will now follow instructions, either keeping the character of its parent or developing a new trait to form part of a different tissue. Each new cell has its fate mapped out in advance, so there is no room for teenage rebellion among the cells of the C. elegans embryo.

The other useful thing about this worm is its complete transparency, which has allowed biologists to trace the lineage of all 959 of its cells*, including the 131 cells that died along the way.

The life of a small organism can be completely prescribed: hatch, grow, moult four times, then mate. Most C. elegans adults are hermaphrodites – they make sperm, then switch to making eggs, and fertilise themselves. One could find this cycle depressing, but that’s not the take-home message for Hardin.

Biologists always seem to find their chosen organism beautiful, perhaps because they have come to appreciate its features in great detail. It certainly helps if you find beautiful the thing that you spend most of your days staring at. Being able to understand an organism in such detail is beautiful in itself. And the elegance of an animal that is so tiny and yet so detailed is astonishing. Long gone are the days when cells were thought to be homogenous, gelatinous blobs.

The world we inhabit is highly ordered and that order brings complexity. Creatures in some way make themselves, and reproduction is the best example of our being granted some part in the creative process. Even if we don’t completely understand the details, we get to ‘make’ whole new living things – worms on a Petri dish, geranium cuttings, kittens, children…

* Excluding the gametes, which have variable cell numbers If you want to know more about C. elegans, you can read to your heart’s content in this online text book, http://www.wormbook.org, to which Jeff Hardin has contributed a chapter on epidermal morphogenesis. 

(Previous series with Jeff: Part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here.)

Worship at work

© Hardin lab, http://worms.zoology.wisc.edu

This post is the last in a series of three from an interview with Professor Jeff Hardin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I love what he says here about aesthetics, transcendence, and the feeling of worship that a scientist can feel when they’re in the lab. (Part 1 here, part 2 here.)

To me, there’s something wrong with you as a Christian and a scientist if you don’t have a personal investment in the material that you’re trying to convey. I think my colleagues also share my sense of wonder about the world. Why exactly is that? Why do we have a sense of wonder? I could talk about Rudolph Otto’s ‘sense of the numinous’.  But can we get to something a little bit more concrete than that? I think it’s, as Tom Wright says, an ‘echo of a voice’. Creation itself is calling out to us, saying something about its creator. That’s what motivates me as a scientist.

Science for a Christian, in some very real sense, is an exercise in art appreciation, and art historians must take the works of art on their own terms and try to understand them. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has written a good deal about aesthetics, and how it feeds into epistemology (how we know what we know), and even to metaphysics. I’m trying to explore that in my own thinking and reading. For me, being a Christian means that I need to take the contingent world as it is and understand it as well as I can, in the same way that someone who’s studying a work of art must take it as it is and try to understand it for its own sake, as well as he or she can.

I think the tendency at times in the States is to be suspicious of people of faith when they come to doing science. But I would argue that Christians ought to be better scientists because they have to take the world on its own terms.  There’s the analogy of the ‘two books’ – which comes from Psalm 19 – the book of God’s works in the world and the book of God’s word, which for Christians is the Bible. We need to take each of those books incredibly seriously. The regularity of heavenly bodies is the subject of discussion in Psalm 19, but there are other Psalms that talk about biological process, including predator-prey relationships and everything else. It’s clear in these pieces of poetry that understanding those biological processes as well as you can is actually an exercise in giving glory to the one who stands behind them. To me that’s part and parcel of being a scientist.

Theoretical chemist Fritz Schaefer was quoted a number of years ago in an American news magazine as saying that when he discovers something for the first time he has a moment where he thinks, ‘Aha, that’s how God did it!’ That moment is very like when you go on a hike and there’s a special spot at the end with a beautiful view that not many people know about. The natural response is to want to share that with somebody. I think the same is true in science, and as a Christian I want to share that discovery with God himself. It becomes an act of worship for me.