DNA’s Inspirational Design

Origin of Life

FAZALE RANA  (Transcript of Dr. Rana's talk on the 2nd International Conference) It’s exciting to be part of a project in which one of the goals is to show the world that Christians and Muslims can work together to demonstrate how scientific advance 1) points to the existence of God; and 2) undermines the evolutionary paradigm—a paradigm often used to justify atheism.


 

I am honored to be invited to take part in this year’s 2nd International Conference on the Origin of Life. I had the privilege of speaking at last year’s conference. And, like last year, I am grateful for this opportunity.

It’s exciting to be part of a project in which one of the goals is to show the world that Christians and Muslims can work together to demonstrate how scientific advance 1) points to the existence of God; and 2) undermines the evolutionary paradigm—a paradigm often used to justify atheism.

If evolutionary mechanisms can account for the origin, history of life and the design of biological systems, then the obvious question arises: ‘what role is a Creator to play?” Evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins wrote in his book The Blind Watchmaker: “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

Statements like this cause many people to conclude [mistakenly] that scientific advance makes belief in God impossible. Yet, it was science that led me to the strong conviction that a Creator must exist. When I entered college, I was an agnostic. I didn’t know if God existed or not, I simply wasn’t interested in religion. The focus of my attention was biochemistry. I wanted to do everything that I could to prepare myself to go to graduate school so that I could earn a PhD in biochemistry.

As an undergraduate, I was convinced that evolutionary mechanisms could account for the origin, history, and design of biological systems. My convictions were not based on a careful examination of the evidence. But instead, they were based on what my biology professors taught me. I admired my professors and because I respected them, I accepted their claims about the evolutionary paradigm without hesitation.

When I speak on university campuses in the United States, I often encounter students who—as I did—uncritically embrace the evolutionary paradigm, because they, too, respect and admire their professors.

But, my views changed during my graduate studies. One of the goals of a graduate education is to teach the student to independently think through the scientific evidence and develop conclusions based on the evidence alone, regardless of what other experts might say. And because I was learning to think for myself, I was willing to ask questions that I did not ask as an undergraduate student. One of those questions was: How did life originate?

The elegant design, the sophistication, and the ingenuity of biochemical systems prompted me to ask that question. I wanted to know: How does the scientific community account for the origin of such remarkable biochemical systems through strictly mechanistic processes? After examining the various explanations available at that time, I was shocked. The explanations presented by the scientific community seemed to me to be woefully inadequate. I was convinced that chemical and physical processes alone could not generate life itself. This realization coupled with the elegant design and biochemical systems forced me to that conclusion– for intellectual reasons alone– that a Creator must indeed exist and must have been responsible for bringing life into being.

After concluding that God exists, I asked myself: Who is the Creator? Do I relate to the Creator? If so, how? I became convinced that the answer to these questions was found in Christianity.

I reached these conclusions over 30 years ago. And in the prevailing decades, the scientific evidence has continued to confirm my convictions about God’s existence. The case that can be made for a Creator from the design of biochemical systems and the problems associated with the origin of life has become even more compelling.

The goal of this lecture is to give you a window into some of the reasons why—as a biochemist—I think a Creator must indeed exist.

Towards this end, I will focus on the elegant, ingenious design of DNA and describe three ways this biomolecule’s structure and function are inspiring new nanotechnologies.

 

The optimal design of DNA is inspiring technology development in at least three key areas:

  • new digital data storage media
  • computing
  • nanoelectronics

The use of biological designs to drive technological advance is one of the most exciting areas in engineering. This area of study—called biomimetics and bioinspiration—presents us with new reasons to believe that life stems from a Creator, and, at the same time, raises fundamental problems for the evolutionary paradigm.

DNA’s Role in the Cell

To appreciate how DNA can inspire advances in nanotechnology, it is important to understand the role this biomolecule plays in the cell. DNA’s chief role is as an information storage system. Built into the structure of the DNA molecule is digital information. The cell’s machinery uses this information to produce the molecules needed to form the cell’s structures and carry out the cell’s operations.

DNA’s Structure Is Optimal for Data Storage

As biochemists have characterized the properties of DNA, they have come to appreciate that this molecule is optimally designed as a molecular-scale data storage system. In fact, biochemists think that DNA approaches the theoretical maximum in terms of its digital data storage capacity.

Because of time constraints, I can’t describe all the features of DNA responsible for its optimal data storage properties. For those interested, I recommend my book The Cell’s Design, in which I describe many of the just-right chemical characteristics of DNA that make this molecule uniquely suited as an information storage medium.

DNA as a Digital Storage Medium

DNA’s data storage capabilities are inspiring nanotechnologist to explore the prospects of using this biomolecule to solve the data storage crisis that confronts us.

Currently, there is 44 trillion megabytes of digital data existing in the world today. To put this number into context, assuming 10 billion people in the world, each person would have to possess over 6000 CDs to store all this data. If we continue to generate data at this pace, by 2040 there will not be enough high quality silicon to produce digital data storage devices.

Because DNA approaches the theoretical maximum for digital data storage, one kilogram of DNA can store all the digital data existing in the world today.

In 2012, as proof of principle, a research team from Harvard University, headed up by George Church, encoded the entire contents of a 54,000-word book into fragments of DNA. In addition, they also encoded 11 jpeg images into the DNA fragments. These researchers also showed that they could read out the information found in the DNA fragments, using locater sequences designed into each fragment. These locater sequences function in the same way that page numbers function in a conventional book.

Since then, researchers have encoded computer programs and operating systems into the DNA molecule.

Not only are researchers exploring the use of DNA as a digital storage medium, they are also gaining inspiration from DNA’s structure and function to design novel man-made polymers with the capabilities of storing digital data.

DNA Computing

Computer scientist and molecular biologist have come to realize that the cell’s machinery which manipulates DNA literally functions like a computer system at its most basic level of operation.

The similarity between cellular processes, such as transcription, DNA replication, and DNA repair, and the fundamental operation of computer systems is inspiring an area of nanotechnology called DNA computing. The idea for DNA computing is the brainchild of computer scientist Leonard Adelman, who is at the University of Southern California in the United States.

DNA computers are made up of DNA and the proteins that manipulate this biomolecule inside the cell. These computers are housed in tiny test tubes, yet, they are more powerful than the most powerful super computer system we have available to us. That power largely stems from the capacity to perform a vast number of parallel computations, simultaneously.

Researchers have used DNA computers to solve problems that silicon-based supercomputer systems can’t solve, such as the Hamilton Path problems and the Knight problem.

DNA Wires

In the early 1990s, chemist Jacqueline Barton discovered an unusual property displayed by DNA: namely, this biomolecule can conduct electrical current through its interior, along the length of the double helix. Conductance of electrical current through DNA is more rapid and more efficient than through ‘standard’ wires.

A little over a decade later, Barton and her collaborators showed that charge conductance through the DNA double helix allows the cell’s machinery to efficiently detect damage to the DNA double helix that results from chemical or physical insults.

Damage detection is done by ‘surveillance’ proteins. These proteins bind to DNA. Once bound, they send an electron from an iron-sulfur redox center through the interior of the double helix, establishing a current through the DNA molecule. Once a surveillance protein loses an electron, it cannot dissociate from the DNA double helix. Other surveillance proteins bound to the DNA, pick up the electrons from the DNA’s interior at their iron-sulfur redox center. When they do, they dissociate from the DNA, resuming their migration along the double helix. Eventually, the migrating surveillance protein will bind to the DNA again, sending an electron through the DNA’s interior.

This process is repeated, over and over, again. However, if damage has occurred to the DNA molecule, it will distort the double helix, interrupting the flow of electrons through its interior. When this happens, the surveillance proteins remain attached to the DNA, signaling the location of the damage to the DNA repair machinery.

Currently, nanotechnologists are exploring the use of DNA as nanowires, allowing them to build nano-electronic devices. Researchers think that DNA nanowires may find specific use in building the next generation of medical diagnostic devices.

DNA Inspires the Case for a Creator

DNA’s optimal design not only inspires new technologies, it also inspires the case for a Creator. To more fully appreciate why this is the case, I would like to turn our attention to the Watchmaker Argument for God’s existence.

Paley’s Watchmaker Argument

Eighteenth-century Anglican natural theologian William Paley posited the Watchmaker argument. In the opening pages of his 1802 work, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, Paley sets the stage for his famous Watchmaker analogy:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there: I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever… But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, namely, that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive - what we could not discover in the stone - that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are . . . or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it... This mechanism being observed… the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer: who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.”

For Paley, the characteristics of a watch and the complex interaction of its precision parts for time-keeping purposes implied the work of an Intelligent Designer. Paley asserted, by analogy, that just as a watch requires a watchmaker, so too, life requires a Creator, since organisms display a wide range of features characterized by the precise interplay of complex parts for specific purposes. According to the Watchmaker analogy, both watches and organisms display design. Watches are the product of a watchmaker. Therefore, organisms are the product of a Creator.

It is straightforward to appreciate how advances in biochemistry breathe new life into the Watchmaker Argument.

As a case in point, DNA computers, inside the cell and test tube, highlight the remarkable similarities between human designs and the biochemical designs inside the cell. We know from common experience that computer systems—the pinnacle of engineering achievement in our day—require a mind (in fact, many minds) to explain their existence. And because we find computer systems operating within the cell, we can reasonably conclude that life requires a Divine Mind to account for its existence.

In light of this conclusion, consider what Adelman says about the relationship between computers and biology:

“The most important thing about DNA computing is that it shows that DNA molecules can do what we normally think only computers can do. This implies that Computer Science and Biology are closely related. That every living thing can be thought to be computing something, and that, sometimes, we can understand living things better by looking at them as computers.”

A Watchmaker Prediction

In conjunction with my presentation of the revitalized Watchmaker argument in The Cell’s Design, I proposed the Watchmaker prediction. I contend that many of the cell’s molecular systems currently go unrecognized as analogous to human designs because the corresponding technology has yet to be developed. That is, the Watchmaker argument may well become stronger in the future, and its conclusion more certain, as human technology advances.

The possibility that advances in human technology will ultimately mirror the molecular technology that already exists as an integral part of biochemical systems, leads to the Watchmaker prediction: As human designers develop new technologies, examples of these technologies, which previously went unrecognized, will become evident in the operation of the cell’s molecular systems. In other words, if the Watchmaker analogy truly serves as evidence for the Creator’s existence, then it is reasonable to expect that life’s biochemical machinery anticipate human technological advances.

Biomimetics and the Converse Watchmaker Argument

A related argument to the Watchmaker prediction can be dubbed the converse Watchmaker analogy: If biological designs are the work of a Creator, then these systems should be so well-designed that they can serve as engineering models and, otherwise, inspire the development of new technologies. In this way, the disciplines of biomimetics and bioinspiration add support for the Watchmaker argument. At some level, I find the converse Watchmaker argument more compelling than the classical Watchmaker analogy. It is remarkable to me that biological designs can inspire engineering efforts. It is even more astounding to think that biomimetics and bioinspiration programs could be so successful if biological systems were truly generated by an unguided, historically contingent process, as evolutionary biologists claim.

The Blind Watchmaker Rebuttal

I find the Watchmaker Argument to be compelling. Yet, in my experience when I present this argument to skeptics, they will argue that evolutionary processes can serve as the watchmaker. In fact, they regard these processes as the blind watchmaker. This idea is articulated by Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins says this:

“Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

Dawkins goes on to add:

“[Paley] had a proper reverence for the complexity of the living world, and he saw that it demands a very special kind of explanation. The only thing he got wrong was the explanation itself… The true explanation… had to wait for… Charles Darwin.”

Biomimetics and Bioinspiration: The Challenge to the Evolutionary Paradigm

Work in biomimetics and bioinspiration provide a response to the blind watchmaker challenge. To appreciate this challenge, we need to discuss the nature of the evolutionary process.

Evolutionary biologists view biological systems as the outworking of unguided, historically contingent processes that co-opt preexisting designs to cobble together new systems. Once these designs are in place, evolutionary mechanisms can optimize them, but still, these systems remain, in essence, kludges.

Most evolutionary biologists are quick to emphasize that evolutionary processes and pathways seldom yield perfect designs. Instead, most biological designs are flawed in some way. To be certain, most biologists would concede that natural selection has produced biological designs that are well adapted, but they would maintain that biological systems are not well designed. Why? Because evolutionary processes do not produce biological systems from scratch, but from preexisting systems that are co-opted through a process dubbed exaptation (by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould), and then modified by natural selection to produce new designs. Once formed, these new structures can be fine-tuned and optimized through natural selection to produce well-adapted designs, but not well-designed systems. According to biologist Ken Miller:

“Evolution… does not produce perfection. The fact that every intermediate stage in the development of an organ must confer a selective advantage means that the simplest and most elegant design for an organ cannot always be produced by evolution. In fact, the hallmark of evolution is the modification of pre-existing structures. An evolved organism, in short, should show the tell-tale signs of this modification.”

If biological systems, in effect, are kludged together, why would engineers and technologists turn to them for inspiration? If produced by evolutionary processes—even if these processes operated over the course of millions of years—biological systems should make unreliable muses for technology development. Does it make sense for engineers to rely on biological systems—historically contingent and exapted in their origin—to solve problems and inspire new technologies, much less build an entire subdiscipline of engineering around mimicking biological designs?

Using biological designs to guide engineering efforts seems to be fundamentally incompatible with an evolutionary explanation for life’s origin and history. On the other hand, biomimetics and bioinspiration naturally flow out of an intelligent design/creation model approach to biology. Using biological systems to inspire engineering makes better sense if the designs in nature arise from a Mind.

Biomimetics and the Book of Job

As a scientist and as a Christian, I find it remarkable how the Old and New Testaments anticipate scientific advance.

When it comes to biomimetics and bioinspiration, Job 12:7-9 immediately comes to mind:

7“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,

   or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;

8 or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,

   or let the fish in the sea inform you.

9 Which of all these does not know

   that the hand of the Lord has done this?”

13 “To God belong wisdom and power;

   counsel and understanding are his.

 

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