Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Excited both as a Science Geek and as a God Worshiper (part 6 in the Why I Believe Series)

note:  This post logically fits in after part 4 in the “Why I Believe Series”, but because the article which prompted this post just came out, it is the 6th post in the series chronologically.

                I’m excited about an article I just read online in Science Magazine. The article is about a team of really smart scientists who have produced a type of bacteria with close to the smallest possible DNA molecules needed for a free living, reproducing organism.

                Why would I be excited about something so weird and at first glance so irrelevant to our lives?

                As I mentioned in a previous post, as an intellectual hobby I like to learn about how science provides evidence which points to God.   This evidence is all around us, from atoms to galaxies.  Perhaps the clearest and strongest evidence is found in the amazing complexity, beauty, and wonder of living things.

                Sadly, many people have been blinded, or at least partly blinded, to the glory of God as revealed in creation.  They have been blinded by the false narrative which claims that all living things were created by unguided natural processes using only the laws of nature and random chance.  This article about a tiny new bacteria provides strong evidence that natural processes alone could not have created the first life on earth.

                There are many aspects of life which are difficult to explain by evolution.  For example, the eye’s ability to “see” along with a brain able to process complex visual information is incredible.  The same is true of the ability of birds to fly and the ability of people to learn and speak languages.  

                As amazing as vision, flight, and language are, many scientists, both those who do not believe in macroevolution and those who do, agree that the most difficult problem for evolution is the appearance of the very first living cell.

                The theory of evolution was only designed to explain small, gradual changes in life.  After the discovery of DNA and how it works, modern evolutionary theory attempted to explain all of life by proposing that random changes in DNA occasionally produced lucky improvements which could be passed on to future generations.  But for evolution to work at all, you have to have a biological system capable of storing and passing on biological information to future generations.  The ONLY system which can do this is the cell.  All life consists of living cells.  Scientists speculate about other ways information might be stored and passed on without living cells, but so far no one has actually found such a thing in nature or created such a thing in a lab.

                Many scientists have theorized and written about the possibility of a “RNA world” before the first cells where RNA molecules in a theoretical biotic soup stored and passed on biological information.  No such thing has been found or produced, and there are strong reasons to believe it can’t work.  But, even if something like that did exist, you eventually have to create the first cell since ALL known life today consists of living cells.

                As a result, the more complex cells are, the harder it is for scientists to explain how unguided evolution could have produced the first one.  If you imagine that the smallest cells are very simple (after all, they are very small), you might not have a hard time imagining such a thing popping into existence by luck in a pond or next to a hot spring or somewhere else on the ancient earth.  But, if even the very simplest cell is amazingly complex, this scenario becomes practically impossible.

How the New Article Helps

                Over the last few decades, scientific knowledge about cells has increased dramatically.  This is due in part to greatly improved methods for identifying the sequence of base pairs in DNA molecules.  Why is that important?  Well, it turns out that the base pairs in DNA molecules work almost exactly like binary code on your computer hard drive.  The base pairs form a code language which controls a lot of what goes on in each cell.  You can’t just put a random collection of 1s and 0s into a computer operating system and expect it to work. Neither could a random sequence of base pairs produce a functioning cell.  The order of the pairs is essential.

                Computer code is made by intelligent minds.  If there was not an Intelligent Designer (God) providing information for the first cell, where did it come from?  The usual answer from evolution is that the information in DNA came from a combination of random changes and natural selection operating over time.  It is much easier to imagine random changes producing a short functional code than a long one.  The shortest code in an actual free living cell from nature belongs to a little guy named mycoplasma genatilium. (I say “free living” because there are weird bacteria that can only live inside or attached to other bacteria or cells because they depend on those cells for key functions, like having a cell wall).  So how long is the DNA code of little mycoplasma genatilium?

Answer:  1,079,000 bp (base pairs)

                That’s huge. It is extremely difficult (to put it mildly) for evolutionists to explain how such a long code could be randomly produced.  Many scientists have speculated that perhaps cells could have existed in the past with shorter, simpler DNA codes.  While speculating is fun, doing the hard work to find a minimal genome size is something else.  Thankfully, a big team of hardworking scientists have worked for quite a few years to do more than speculate.  They have actually created a cell with a smaller genome.  And not just any smaller genome.  There are multiple lines of evidence which indicate that they have created a cell which has approximately the smallest genome possible which can support a free living, reproducing cell.  They started with little mycoplasma genatilium and, based on both cell theory and practical experimentation, they eliminated nearly all the code that can be eliminated.  Their work is impressive and may be very valuable for future cell research.  So, how big is this “smallest possible” genome?

Answer:  531, 000 bp

An Analogy:  Writing a Book with Detailed Instructions for a Robot to Build a Car

                To get a feel for how amazing 531,000 bp of information is, let’s imagine a book written with detailed instructions telling a robot how to build a car.  This imaginary robot can do anything a good mechanic with a good set of tools and a garage can do except the robot cannot think on its own (neither can a cell!).  The robot will blindly follow your instructions. Instructions like that would most likely be written in binary computer code, but since it’s hard for most of us to relate to that, let’s imagine that this robot reads plain English and so you write the instructions in English.  To simplify things we’ll ignore capital letters, blank spaces, and punctuation.

                In order to compare the instructions for our imaginary robot to the instructions stored in the DNA of the simplest cell, we need to answer a question:  How many pages of instructions would be equivalent to the amount of information stored in the cell with a minimal genome?

                The DNA “alphabet” has only four chemical letters, represented by the letters A,G,T, and C. Because English uses 26 letters and there are only four chemical letters, comparing the information stored by a certain number of letters is a bit tricky. If you do the math, it turns out that the equivalent amount of information stored in 531,000 bp of DNA would take 226,000 English letters.  How many pages is that?  Of course it depends on the page size, font size, and spacing.  I’m writing the first draft of this blog post in MS Word on normal 8.5x11 paper, font size 11, single spacing, with a space added between paragraphs.  It comes out to a little less than 3,000 letters per page.  That means that the super tiny, simplest possible cell contains the equivalent of about 75 pages of instructions written in English.

                At first glance, 75 pages of instructions might not sound too difficult to produce.  But, here’s the catch.  According to evolutionary theory, these instructions cannot be produced by any intelligent being.  And since there is no known organism simpler than this tiny cell which could have reproduced itself, all the instructions have to appear at once.  The only mechanism for doing this is arranging the letters by chance.  Could that work?

                Let’s say that one of the many lines of instruction for your imaginary robot was:

Mount each tire on its lug bolts, then place the lug nut on each lug bolt and tighten each nut.

                That sentence contains 75 letters, not including spaces. If 75 letters were just randomly typed, what would be the probability of producing that exact sentence?
 2675= 1.3 x 10106

The chances of producing that one line of instruction by typing 75 random letters is 1 in 1.3x10106.  That’s slightly more than 1 followed by 106 zeros.  That number is so large I could not use my scientific calculator to calculate it.  This is far more than the number of atoms in the entire earth, which is estimated to be 1 x 1050.  Now, if you are a bit rusty at math you might make the mistake of thinking that 1 x10100 is twice as big as 1x1050.  That is really, really wrong.  It is 1x1050 times as big.  In other words, if you had as many planet earths as there are atoms in the earth, and for every atom in all those planets combined you got one chance to randomly type 75 letters, your chances of producing the line of instruction up above would be about 1 in a million (divide 1.3x10106 by 1x10100 and you get 1.3 million).

                But hold on!  We don’t need that exact sentence.  Any sentence with the same meaning could work.  Here are some examples:

 Put each tire on the lug bolts, then put the lug nut on each lug bolt and tighten each lug nut.
Mount the four tires on the lug bolts, then put the lug nut on each lug bolt and tighten each lug nut.
Mount each tire on the lug bolts, then place the lug nut on each lug bolt and tighten each lug nut.
Mount each tire on the lug bolts, then put the lug nut on each lug bolt, tighten each lug nut.

                Perhaps we could come up with several thousand, or even tens of thousands, of sentences that your robot could use successfully.  In the same way, there are more than one sequence of DNA letters which can produce a protein capable of performing a given function.  Imagine there were as many as a million different sentences your robot could use as instructions to place the tires on the car.  Would that help?  Sure, but not enough.  The chances of producing any one of those one million sentences by randomly typing the characters would still be something like 1 in 1.3x10100. (This number would change a little with the shorter sentences.)

                Let me put this in plain English.  It is absolutely impossible to produce even one relatively simple line of instruction by randomly typing letters.  Impossible.  Similar calculations taking into account a lot of detail about chemistry have shown that it is also practically impossible to produce a string of DNA letters which would produce a functionally useful protein by randomly arranging those DNA letters.

                Here’s the kicker.  The SIMPLEST reproducing cell does not need just one line of instructions.  It needs the equivalent of roughly 75 pages of line by line instructions.  And some of those “lines” will be longer than 75 characters.  This is because the average protein length in bacteria is about 267 amino acids!  It’s even longer in more complex forms of life.

It Gets Worse (for the evolutionist)

                Even if you had a usable 75 pages of instructions, you could not build your car without a robot who can follow those instructions.  The equivalent of the robot in the living cell is a collection of very complex molecular machines made from proteins. These machines “read” the DNA code and use it to manufacture proteins.  (My previous post includes links to two short animated videos showing some molecular machines.)  But where did these complex machines come from?  They were built by the instructions contained in DNA.  But if the DNA needs the machines to be useful, and if the machines are built by the DNA, how did the whole thing get started?  It’s a super massive chicken and egg problem!

And It Keeps Getting Worse

                While scientists were able to construct a real live, reproducing cell with “only” 531,000bp, this cell is not the best model for what would be needed for the first hypothetical cell to survive and multiply on earth.  Why?  This experimental cell grows only in a rich growth medium in a lab. The article in Science explains:

The work described here has been conducted in medium that supplies virtually all the small molecules required for life. A minimal genome determined under such permissive conditions should reveal a core set of environment-independent functions that are necessary and sufficient for life. Under less permissive conditions, we expect that additional genes will be required.

                This admission takes nothing away from the accomplishment of these scientists.  They were not trying to create the most likely candidate for the first living cell, but rather the living cell with the smallest possible genome.  But for our purposes, this means that in real life the first cell would probably have needed a much larger genome to survive and multiply.

                Going back to our analogy, what the scientists did would be roughly the equivalent of providing your robot with a lot of car parts already largely assembled.  The robot does not have to build an alternator or a battery or a crankshaft, it just has to install them.  But the first cell would have had to build most of it’s parts nearly from “scratch”.  In fact, even among naturally occurring cells, like the tiny mycoplasma genatilium, the cells with the smallest genomes get a lot of help by using “preassembled parts”.  That’s why you find mycoplasma genatilium living in the gut of mammals where the host organism provides a lot of the needed molecules.  A more complex form of bacteria like e. coli can assemble its own parts.  How big is e. coli’s genome?  4.6 million base pairs!

What about the Cells in Your Body?

                Up to now, we have been talking about the very simplest cells.  How many base pairs does your DNA have?  Over 3 billion.  Those three billion chemical letters of code are found in every one of the approximately 37 trillion cells in your body! Based on our analogy, that means each cell in your body contains roughly the equivalent of 423,000 pages of information.

                At some point it’s time to drop down on our knees and worship our amazing God who created all this.  God said to Job,

26 "Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread its wings toward the south?
27 Does the eagle soar at your command and build its nest on high?
(Job 39:26-27 NIV)

                Perhaps if Job had been a 21st century molecular biologist, God would have added,

Did you write the DNA code for the first living cell?
Did you create its amazing molecular machines?
Can you design 37 trillion cells into a body that can grow and think and see and sing and dance and believe and kneel and  . . . worship?

How great is our God!

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .

This is part 6, you may find links to other posts in this "Why I Believe . . ." series below:

Blog Posts in the “Why I Believe Enough to Keep Following Jesus” Series

                 Note:  Part 2 includes a poem I wrote

Seeing Evidence of God in Creation

Seeing Evidence in the Bible

note:  Yes, I’m aware that part 6 is out of order.  That happened due to an article I read about scientific evidence for God that came out after I had written part 5

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