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

Flies and Robotics: Ordered Irregularity

The organization of Drosophila wing epithelial cells after wing inflation. Iyengar, Balaji (2012). figshare. License <a
The organization of Drosophila wing epithelial cells after wing inflation. Iyengar, Balaji (2012). figshare. License CC-BY

As I child I wondered what would happen if my bones grew at a different speed to my skin? Would the bones pop out or would I have floppy boneless regions? How did everything coordinate? As with most childhood questions, below the surface of the apparently childish simplicity there is a deep scientific question which parents often battle to answer. Continue reading

On Awe and Zebrafish

Head of a Zebrafish larva, around 24h
Head of a Zebrafish larva, around 24h, by Ruth Bancewicz.

Whether Christian or not, scientists share a reverence for the moment when painstaking lab work blossoms into something almost transcendent. This post is taken from an article that I recently wrote for Third Way, and explains some of the thinking behind my current work on science and faith.

I’ll never forget my first sight of a Zebrafish larva. At twenty-four hours old they are about two and a half millimetres long and almost completely translucent. A simple low-magnification microscope reveals every detail of their anatomy in minute detail. You can see the heart pumping, and tiny red blood cells moving through capillaries. You can trace the outline of muscle fibres in their tails, and see every detail of the developing eye. Later on the eye becomes covered in silvery pigment cells, the transparent lens protruding, beautifully rounded and greenish in colour.

As a teenager heading off to university, I knew that science was compatible with Christianity – but I didn’t expect it to enhance my faith in the way that it has. Continue reading

Recipe for a human

© Ayse Kongur, freeimages.com

The Faraday Institute summer course is in full swing, and on Tuesday morning evolutionary biologist David Lahti presented some reflections about his own work on human behaviour. What he said was fascinating, and raises all sorts of questions regarding human personhood. The analogy that he used was the baking of bread. The ingredients he focused on were the ‘flour’ of genetics, the ‘water’ of the environment, the ‘yeast’ of agency and the heat of development. Not all of the ingredients are apparent in the finished product, but all are essential.

It would be easy to think that genetics is unimportant in the determination of behaviour. Over 90% of the prison population possesses a y chromosome, but being male is not considered a reasonable defence against criminal charges, and neither has anyone taken steps to prevent further violence by incarcerating all those in possession of such a chromosome (and perhaps that’s a good thing…)

Lahti spent the first part of his talk outlining some recent findings in the field of behavioural genetics, including alcoholism, trust, mate choice and political preferences. Amazingly (to me) there are indications of heritability for all of these traits, although because they are such broad categories it has proved difficult to find genes that play a major role in determining these characteristics. 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.