Have Origin-of-Life Researchers Found the RNA World “Money Train”?

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BY FAZALE RANA – AUGUST 31, 2016

As I write this blog post, amateur treasure hunters in Poland are trying to determine if a local legend is true. According to the lore, during the end of World War II, as the Germans escaped the advancing Soviet army, a train loaded with $200 million in gold, silver, and valuable art disappeared in a complex series of secret tunnels beneath a castle in the Owl Mountains. The treasure hunters claim they have evidence for the location of the buried train and now local authorities are excavating three sites of potential interest. But skepticism abounds. It’s not clear if the legend has any basis in reality. The treasure hunters and local officials may be looking for a treasure that may never have existed.

Over the last several decades, origin-of-life researchers have been on a quest for their own version of a “money train”: a self-replicating ribozyme. If they can find such a molecule—which may not have ever existed—they will go a long way toward validating one of the most prominent origin-of-life models: the RNA world hypothesis. Recent work by scientists from the Scripps Institute adds to the hope that a self-replicating ribozyme may one day be discovered.1 But careful assessment of their work indicates that their hope may not be based in reality.

The RNA World Hypothesis

Many origin-of-life investigators think that RNA predated both DNA and proteins as the premier replicator and information-harboring molecule. Accordingly, RNA operated as a self-replicator that catalyzed its own synthesis. The RNA world hypothesis supposes that, over time, numerous RNA molecules representing a wide-range of catalytic activity emerged. At this point in life’s history, biochemistry centered exclusively on RNA. With time, proteins (and eventually DNA) joined RNA in the cell’s arsenal. During the transition to the contemporary DNA-protein world, RNA’s original function became partitioned between proteins and DNA, and RNA assumed its current intermediary role. RNA ancestral molecules presumably disappeared without leaving a trace of their primordial existence.

In the mid-1980s, the discovery of RNA molecules with enzymatic activity (called ribozymes) propelled the RNA world hypothesis to prominence.

Since then, several scientific teams working in the laboratory have produced a number of ribozymes with a range of biological activity using a technique called in vitro evolution. For many origin-of-life researchers, this work adds more credibility to the RNA world scenario. In principle, it demonstrates that life centered on RNA biochemistry is conceivable.

The Quest for a Self-Replicating RNA

The real “money train” for the RNA world is a self-replicating ribozyme, but researchers have made limited progress toward discovering this type of ribozyme. For example, they have produced a variety of ribozymes that (1) assist in the synthesis of ribonucleotides; (2) join two RNA chains together (in a process called ligation); and (3) add ribonucleotide subunits to the end of an RNA molecule, extending the chain. All of these activities are necessary for replication of RNA molecules, yet, to date, biochemists have been unable to make RNA with genuine self-replicating capability.

The latest work by scientists from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) adds to these accomplishments, moving origin-of-life researchers closer to a self-replicating RNA. But the train still hasn’t arrived at the station.

The researchers from TSRI extended the work of earlier studies, using in vitro evolution to modify a ribozyme dubbed the class I RNA polymerase ribozyme. This molecule—initially generated by researchers in the 1990s—can join together some RNA molecules once they bind to a template to produce larger RNA molecules. Later, researchers modified the original ribozyme so that it could use a template to form RNA chains over 100 nucleotides in length. Unfortunately, the modified version of the class I RNA polymerase ribozyme is quite finicky. While it can only transcribe RNA with certain nucleotide sequences and cannot transcribe RNA molecules with complex three-dimensional structures.

TSRI scientists randomly mutated the RNA sequence of the modified version of the class I RNA polymerase to generate a population of 100 trillion molecules. From this population, they selected those ribozymes that could transcribe two different RNA molecules with a complex three-dimensional structure. Once they identified the ribozymes with the desired properties, they repeated the process, mutating the newly identified ribozymes to produce a new population of molecules. After 24 rounds, they had successfully evolved a ribozyme (they called the 24-3 ribozyme) that can copy RNA molecules with complex three-dimensional structures and, in turn, make copies of RNA molecules it had already copied. That is, the 24-3 polymerase can amplify specific RNA molecules 10,000 fold.

While this is an important advance for the RNA world hypothesis, the 24-3 polymerase can’t copy itself, a necessary requirement for self-replication.

Evolution or Intelligent Design?

This work has important implications for the creation-evolution debate. Origin-of-life researchers and evolutionary biologists count these types of studies as support for the RNA world hypothesis. More broadly, they point to these types of studies as evidence that evolutionary processes can generate information-rich molecules from random sequences and transform existing biomolecules into ones with new or improved function.

As a Christian apologist, I have to acknowledge that these scientists have a point. In principle, evolutionary mechanisms can generate bioinformation.2 But, I would argue that studies in in vitro evolution have failed to provide any evidence that evolutionary processes can generate information under the conditions of early Earth.

As I discuss in Creating Life in the Lab, the process of in vitro evolution relies on a carefully developed experimental design and researcher intervention. The protocol begins with a large pool of RNA molecules with random nucleotide sequences, and hence, random structures. From this pool, researchers select (through the experiment’s design) RNA molecules with a predetermined set of chemical properties. These selected RNA molecules are recovered and their number amplified by the enzyme reverse transcriptase and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR also employs an enzyme, a DNA polymerase. The new RNA sequence is then randomly altered to generate a new pool of RNA molecules using another enzyme called T7 RNA polymerase, and the process is repeated again and again until RNA molecules with the desired chemical properties emerge. Production of the RNA self-replicators also required researchers to modify the structure of ribozymes generated by in vitro evolution using rational design principles to improve upon the ribozymes’ function.

The “evolution” of RNA molecules in the laboratory is a carefully orchestrated process devised and managed by intelligent agents. Its success hinges on thoughtful experimental design. Researchers are manipulating the evolutionary process, guiding it to the desired outcome. It must be noted that essential to the success of in vitro evolution studies are the enzymes (protein molecules with a complex, fine-tuned structure), reverse transcriptase, T7 RNA polymerase, and DNA polymerase—molecules that would never have existed in an RNA world. It stretches the bounds of credulity to think that this process, or one like it, could have occurred naturally on early Earth.

As thrilling as this most recent achievement is, origin-of-life researchers have fallen short of demonstrating that information-rich RNA molecules can evolve under the uncontrolled conditions of early Earth.

It is ironic: The very experiments designed to bolster an evolutionary explanation for the origin of life provide powerful support for the role intelligent agency must play in the genesis of life.

Resources
Creating Life in the Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator by Fazale Rana (book)
Too Good to be True: Evolution and the Origin of Bioinformation” by Fazale Rana (article)
Intelligent Design: The Right Conclusion, but the Wrong Reasons” by Fazale Rana (article)
Does New Approach Solve Origin-of-Life Problem?” by Fazale Rana (article)

Endnotes

  1. David P. Horning and Gerald F. Joyce, “Amplification of RNA by an RNA Polymerase Ribozyme,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, published electronically August 15, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1610103113.
  2. Some people might find it surprising that I would acknowledge this point, because many Christian apologists assert that evolutionary mechanisms cannot generate information. In my view, that claim is patently false, as work in in vitro evolution has demonstrated, time and time again.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/08/31/have-origin-of-life-researchers-found-the-rna-world-money-train

Piltdown Man: The Fact and Fantasy of the Hominid Fossil Record

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BY FAZALE RANA – AUGUST 24, 2016

In high school and college, I played my fair share of practical jokes. While a few of the victims of my hoaxes appreciated my sense of humor, most were “not amused.” (To quote my high school English teacher Mrs. Hodges who, in turn, was quoting Queen Victoria: “Mr. Rana, we are not amused.”)

Hoaxes aren’t just frowned upon in high school. They are really frowned upon in science. They undermine the integrity of the scientific process. And because of the damage they can cause, scientific hoaxes have been known to end careers.

Perhaps one of the most significant scientific hoaxes ever took place around the turn of the last century, when Piltdown man fossils were discovered. These fossils—which turned out to be forgeries—were touted as the missing link in human evolution and misdirected paleoanthropology for nearly 40 years. Though many suspects have been identified, nobody knew who perpetrated this hoax—until now, thanks to the efforts of a multidisciplinary research team from the UK.1

Piltdown Man

In 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward reported on fossils recovered from ancient graves near Sussex, England. Pieces of a human-like cranium, a partial ape-like jaw, and a few worn-down molars were interpreted to come from an individual hominid (deemed Eoanthropus dawsoni). The fragments displayed the very features that evolutionary biologists expected to see in the missing link.

Dawson and Woodward reported that their specimen was associated with other ancient mammal fossils, so they dated their find at about 500,000 years old.

Piltdown man’s status as humanity’s ancestor gained further credence with Dawson’s 1915 report of a second specimen recovered near Sheffield Park (dubbed Piltdown man II).

Exposing the Fraud

However, after Raymond Dart discovered Australopithecus in 1924, some scientists began to think Dart’s newly recognized hominid—not Piltdown man—was the one that led to modern humans. Scientists further questioned Piltdown man’s importance as a transitional form in the 1930s when paleoanthropologists discovered and confirmed Pithecanthropus erectus and Sinanthropus pekinensis as ancient hominids. For some paleoanthropologists, Piltdown man was relegated to a mere evolutionary side branch. But still, Piltdown man cast a shadow over paleoanthropology, causing some scientists to question the significance of Dart’s finds and the hominids unearthed in China.

The legendary Piltdown man forgery went unrecognized for nearly 40 years until a team of scientists exposed it as a fraud in 1953. Better dating of the site of Piltdown man’s discovery and careful chemical and morphological analysis of the fossil specimens ultimately exposed what Alexander Kohn (one-time editor of the Journal of Irreproducible Results) called “the most elaborate scientific hoax ever perpetuated.”2 The fossils were actually carefully doctored modern remains stained with a dye to make them appear old. The cranium pieces were human. The jaw bone fragment came from an orangutan. The teeth were carefully filed to fit the mandible and make them appear more human-like.

So who is responsible for the Piltdown man forgery? Science historians have debated the perpetrator’s identity and the motivation behind his or her actions. Thanks to the work of the multidisciplinary team, we are closer to knowing who the perpetrator was. These scientists applied state-of-the-art analytical techniques to the Piltdown man fossils to gain better insight into the nature of the forgery. Using DNA analysis, they determined that the orangutan jaw bone and molars from Piltdown man and Piltdown man II specimens came from the same creature that lived in Borneo.

Three-dimensional x-ray imaging indicated that the skull bones and teeth were all doctored in the same way. The same dental putty was used to fill bones and affix teeth to the mandible for Piltdown man I and II specimens. These results all point to the work of a single forger.

Given the circumstances surrounding Piltdown man’s “discovery,” the evidence strongly points to Charles Dawson as the culprit. As the authors of the study point out:

“Over the years, at least 20 others have been accused of being the perpetrator, but in many cases, the allegation also includes Dawson as co-conspirator. This is largely because the story originated with him, he brought the first specimens to Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Museum (Natural History) in 1912, nothing was ever found at the site when Dawson was not there, he is the only known person directly associated with the supposed finds at the second Piltdown site, the exact whereabouts of which he never revealed, and no further significant fossils, mammal or human, were discovered in the localities after his death in 1916.”3

As impressive as this work is: Why spend so much effort to study fossil forgery? The rationale is two-fold. First, this study demonstrates the value of emerging techniques to shed light on age-old questions in paleoanthropology. Second, this project focuses renewed attention on the Piltdown man forgery—100 years after Dawson’s death—serving as a reminder of how powerful biases can influence interpretations of the fossil record.

Science historians have long discussed why the scientific community so readily accepted Piltdown man as authentic, and why it took so long to recognize the discovery as a forgery, since (at least in retrospect) many indicators along this line were quite evident.

These complex questions have complex answers. In part, the ready acceptance of Piltdown man stemmed from the eagerness to find the “missing link” to support Darwin’s model for human evolution with evidence from the fossil record. Piltdown man exactly fit the scientific community’s preconceived ideas as to what the transitional intermediate between humans and apes must look like. According to Kohn:

“Scientists, contrary to lay belief, do not work by collecting only ‘hard’ facts and fitting together information based on them. Scientific investigation is also motivated by pursuit of recognition and fame, by hope and by prejudice. Dubious evidence is strengthened by strong hope: anomalies are fitted into a coherent picture with the help of cultural bias.”4

To put it another way: Scientists are human, and from time to time their fallibility or bias can influence the scientific process. The scientists who took part in this study agree. Based on their investigation into the Piltdown man forgery, they acknowledge that:

“It has opened our eyes to the scientific rigour required to avoid being deceived in the same manner as so many scientists were between 1912 and 1917. As scientists, we must not be led by preconceived ideas in the evaluation of new discoveries.”5

I fully agree with the authors, but as a skeptic of the evolutionary paradigm I have to ask: Has a different type of bias colored the interpretation of hominid fossil record? Many biologists claim that human evolution is a fact. In light of this commitment, anthropologists interpret the hominid fossil record from a preconceived evolutionary perspective, in spite of the scientific challenges to human evolution that arise from the hominid finds. In my experience, few, if any, anthropologists are open to the possibility that evolutionary mechanisms alone may be insufficient to account for humanity’s origins, regardless of the evidence at hand.

And, in my view, this bias has misdirected attempts to understand humanity’s origins for the last 150 years.

Resources
Q&A: Are There Transitional Intermediates in the Fossil Record?” by Fazale Rana (Article)
The Amazing Disappearing Hominid!” by Fazale Rana (Article)
A Key Transitional Form in Human Evolution May Not Have Existed” by Fazale Rana (Article)
The Unreliability of Hominid Phylogenetic Analysis Challenges the Human Evolutionary Paradigm” by Fazale Rana (Article)
Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (Book)

Endnotes
  1. Isabelle De Groote et al., “New Genetic and Morphological Evidence Suggests a Single Hoaxer Created ‘Piltdown Man,’” Royal Society Open Science 3 (August 2016): 160328, doi:10.1098/rsos.160328.
  2. Alexander Kohn, False Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine, rev. ed. (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 133.
  3. De Groote, “New Genetic and Morphological Evidence.”
  4. Kohn, False Prophets, 140.
  5. De Groote, “New Genetic and Morphological Evidence.”
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/08/24/piltdown-man-the-fact-and-fantasy-of-the-hominid-fossil-record

DNA: Designed for Flexibility

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BY FAZALE RANA – AUGUST 17, 2016

Over the years I’ve learned that flexibility is key to a happy and successful life. If you are too rigid, it can create problems for you and others and rob you of joy.

Recently, a team of collaborators from Duke University and several universities in the US discovered that DNA displays unexpected structural flexibility. As it turns out, this property appears to be key to life.1 In contrast, the researchers showed that RNA (DNA’s biochemical cousin) is extremely rigid, highlighting another one of DNA’s unique structural properties that make it ideal as the cell’s information storage system.

To appreciate DNA’s uniquely optimal properties, a review of this important biomolecule’s structure is in order.

DNA

DNA consists of two chain-like molecules (polynucleotides) that twist around each other to form the DNA double helix. The cell’s machinery forms polynucleotide chains by linking together four different sub-unit molecules called nucleotides. DNA is built from the nucleotides: adenosine, guanosine, cytidine, and thymine, famously abbreviated A, G, C, and T, respectively.

In turn, the nucleotide molecules that make up the strands of DNA are complex molecules, consisting of both a phosphate moiety, and a nucleobase (either adenine, guanine, cytosine, or thymine) joined to a 5-carbon sugar (deoxyribose). (In RNA, the five-carbon sugar ribose replaces deoxyribose.)

dna-designed-for-flexibility-1Image 1: Nucleotide Structure

The backbone of the DNA strand is formed when the cell’s machinery repeatedly links the phosphate group of one nucleotide to the deoxyribose unit of another nucleotide. The nucleobases extend as side chains from the backbone of the DNA molecule and serve as interaction points (like ladder rungs) when the two DNA strands align and twist to form the double helix.

dna-designed-for-flexibility-2Image 2: The DNA Backbone

When the two DNA strands align, the adenine (A) side chains of one strand always pair with thymine (T) side chains from the other strand. Likewise, the guanine (G) side chains from one DNA strand always pair with cytosine (C) side chains from the other strand.

When the side chains pair, they form cross bridges between the two DNA strands. The length of the A-T and G–C cross bridges is nearly identical. Adenine and guanine are both composed of two rings and thymine (uracil) and cytosine are composed of one ring. Each cross bridge consists of three rings.

When A pairs with T, two hydrogen bonds mediate the interaction between these two nucleobases. Three hydrogen bonds accommodate the interaction between G and C. The specificity of the hydrogen bonding interactions accounts for the A-T and G-C base-pairing rules.

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Image 3: Watson-Crick Base Pairs

Watson-Crick and Hoogsteen Base Pairing

In DNA (and in RNA double helixes), the base pairing interactions occur at precise locations between the A and T nucleobases and the G and C nucleobases, respectively. Biochemists refer to these exacting interactions as Watson-Crick base pairing. However, in 1959—six years after Francis Crick and James Watson published their structure for DNA—a biochemist named Karst Hoogsteen discovered another way—albeit, rare—that the A and T nucleobases and the G and C nucleobases pair, called Hoogsteen base pairing.

Hoogsteen base pairing results when the nucleobase attached to the sugar rotates by 180°. Because of the dynamics of the DNA molecule, this nucleobase rotation occurs occasionally, converting a Watson-Crick base pair into a Hoogsteen base pair. However, the same dynamics will eventually revert the Hoogsteen base pair to a Watson-Crick pairing. Hoogsteen base pairs aren’t preferred because they cause a distortion in the DNA double helix. For a “naked” piece of DNA in a test tube, at any point in time, about 1 percent of the base pairs are of the Hoogsteen variety.

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Image 4: Watson-Crick and Hoogsteen Base Pairs
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While rare in naked DNA, biochemists have recently discovered that the Hoogsteen configuration occurs frequently when: 1) proteins bind to DNA; 2) DNA is methylated; and 3) DNA is damaged. Biochemists now think that Hoogsteen base pairing is important to maintain the stability of the DNA double helix, ensuring the integrity of the information stored in the DNA molecule.

According to Hashim Al-Hashimi, “There is an amazing complexity built into these simple beautiful structures, whole new layers or dimensions that we have been blinded to because we didn’t have the tools to see them, until now.”2

It looks like the capacity to form Hoogsteen base pairs is a unique property of DNA. Al-Hashimi and his team failed to detect any evidence for Hoogsteen base pairs in double helixes made up of two strands of RNA. When they chemically attached a methyl group to the nucleobases of RNA to block the formation of Watson-Crick base pairs and force Hoogsteen base pairing, they discovered that the RNA double helix fell apart. Unlike the DNA double—which is flexible—the RNA double helix is rigid and cannot tolerate a distortion to its structure. Instead, the RNA strands can only dissociate.

It turns out that the flexibility of DNA and the rigidity of RNA is explained by the absence of a hydroxyl group in the 2’ position of the deoxyribose sugar of DNA and the presence of the 2’ hydroxyl group on ribose sugar of RNA, respectively. The 2’ position is the only structural difference between the two sugars. The presence or absence of the 2’ hydroxyl group makes all the difference. The deoxyribose ring can more freely adopt alternate conformations (called puckering) than the ribose ring, leading to differences in double helix flexibility.

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Image 5: Difference between Deoxyribose and Ribose

This difference makes DNA ideally suited as an information storage molecule. Because of its ability to form Hoogsteen base pairs, the DNA double helix remains intact, even when the molecule becomes chemically damaged. It also makes it possible for the cell’s machinery to control the expression of the genetic information harbored in DNA through protein binding and DNA methylation.

It is intriguing that DNA’s closet biochemical analogue lacks this property.

It appears that DNA has been optimized for data storage and retrieval. This property is critical for DNA’s capacity to store genetic information. DNA harbors the information needed for the cell’s machinery to make proteins. It also houses the genetic information passed on to subsequent generations. If DNA isn’t stable, then the information it harbors will become distorted or lost. This will have disastrous consequences for the cell’s day-to-day operations and make long-term survival of life impossible.

As I discuss in The Cell’s Design, flexibility is not the only feature of DNA that has been optimized. Other chemical and biochemical features appear to be carefully chosen to ensure its stability; again, a necessary property for a molecule that harbors the genetic information.

Optimized biochemical systems comprise evidence for biochemical intelligent design. Optimization of an engineered system doesn’t just happen—it results from engineers carefully developing their designs. It requires forethought, planning, and careful attention to detail. In the same way, the optimized features of DNA logically point to the work of a Divine engineer.

Resources
DNA Soaks Up Sun’s Rays” by Fazale Rana (Article)
The Cell’s Design by Fazale Rana (Book)
The Cell’s Design: The Proper Arrangement of Elements” by Fazale Rana (Podcast)

Endnotes

  1. Huiqing Zhou et al., “m1A and m1G Disrupt A-RNA Structure through the Intrinsic Instability of Hoogsteen Base Pairs,” Nature Structure and Molecular Biology, published electronically August 1, 2016, doi:10.1038/nsmb.3270.
  2. Duke University, “DNA’s Dynamic Nature Makes It Well-Suited to Serve as the Blueprint of Life,” Science News (blog), ScienceDaily, August 1, 2016, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160801113823.htm.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/08/17/dna-designed-for-flexibility

Can Keratin in Feathers Survive for Millions of Years?

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BY FAZALE RANA – AUGUST 10, 2016

I don’t like conflict. In fact, I try to avoid it whenever possible. And that’s part of the reason I never wanted to become directly involved in the young-earth/old-earth controversy that takes place within the church.

Frankly, I find the debate tedious, and a distraction from the real work at hand: helping skeptics and seekers recognize the scientific evidence for God’s existence and Scripture’s reliability.

Of course, if people ask me age-of-the-earth questions, I am quick to explain why I hold to an old-earth/day-age interpretation for Genesis 1 and what I see as biblical, theological, and scientific issues with a young-earth/calendar day interpretation of the Genesis 1 creation account.

Soft Tissues in Fossils and the Age of the Earth

Over the course of the last few years, one question that has come up a lot relates to the discovery of soft tissue remnants in fossils, such as the blood cells and blood vessels remains recovered from a T. rex specimen that age-dates to 68 million years old. Young earth creationists make use of these surprising results to argue that it is impossible for fossils to be millions of years old. They argue that soft tissues shouldn’t survive that long. These materials should readily degrade in a few thousand years. In their view, these finds challenge the reliability of radiometric dating methods used to determine the age of these fossils, and along with it, Earth’s antiquity. Instead, they argue that these breakthrough discoveries provide compelling scientific evidence for a young Earth and support the idea that the fossil record results from a recent global (worldwide) flood.

Because I’m a biochemist—and an old earth creationist—people frequently ask me how I make sense of the T. rex find and the discovery of other types of soft tissue remnants in the fossil remains of other creatures that age-date to several hundred million years, in some cases.

Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth

These queries eventually motivated me to write Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. And I am glad I did. Aside from the young-earth/old-earth debate, the scientific questions related to soft tissue finds in fossils are captivating.

The central question of Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth centers around soft tissue durability: If radiometric dating is reliable, then how is it possible for soft tissue remnants to persist for millions of years?

Recent work by a research team at North Carolina State University (NC State)—headed up by Mary Schweitzer—helps address this question, specifically focusing on beta-keratin fragments recovered from the fossilized feathers and claws of Shuvuuia deserti and Rahonavis ostromi.1

How Can Keratin Survive in Fossils?

As I discuss in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, some biomolecules (such as keratins) form extremely stable structures that delay their degradation. Keratins have a number of structural features (such as extensive crosslinking) that helps explain why fragments of these proteins could survive for tens of millions of years, under the right conditions.2 But my analysis was theoretical. Even though my assessment was based on sound biochemical principles, it would be nice to have some corroborating experimental evidence to support my claims. (The old saying in science applies: “theories guide, experiments decide.”) And that is precisely what the NC State researchers provide in their recent study.

Feather Decomposition

Schweitzer and her team conducted a ten-year experiment to gain insight into the natural degradation processes of feathers (and other biological materials made up of keratins such as skin, claws, beaks, and hair). To do this, they exposed feathers from a Hungarian partridge to a variety of conditions, and then analyzed the samples busing: (1) transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to monitor changes in the fine structure of the feather’s anatomy; and (2) a technique called in situ immunofluorescence to determine if pieces of keratin proteins persisted in the feather remains.

Of particular interest is the feather samples Schweitzer and her team wrapped in aluminum foil and heated in an oven for 10 years at 630°F—conditions used to sterilize glassware. Many paleontologists consider high heat to be a proxy for deep time.

Perhaps it is no surprise, when viewed under a microscope, the macroscopic features of feathers treated at high temperatures were completely lost. Instead the only thing visible were shiny black pieces of “charcoal-like” material. Yet, when examined at high magnification with a TEM, the investigators were able to visualize fragments of feather barbs. Using their immunofluorescence technique, the researchers were able to detect clear evidence of keratin fragments in the sample.

These observations align with my thoughts about keratin’s durability, making it all the more reasonable to think that soft tissue remnants persist in millions-of-years old fossil remains. In fact, when the researchers applied their immunofluorescence to the Shuvuuia desertisamples, once again, they found evidence for keratin fragments in these fossil remains.

Preservation Mechanisms

As I point out in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, molecular durability alone isn’t sufficient to account for soft tissue survivability. For soft tissue remnants to persist in fossil, the rate of fossilization has to outpace the rate of soft tissue degradation. When that happens, a mineral ‘casing’ will entomb the soft tissue before it completely decomposes, preserving it for paleontologists to later discover. In addition to molecular durability, scientists have identified a number of mechanisms that contribute to both the degradation and preservation of soft tissues during the process of burial and fossilization.

Along these lines, the NC State scientists speculate on processes that might extend keratin’s survivability in feathers—at least, long enough for mineral entombment to occur. They think one of their observations about the high-heat sample offers a clue. The research team noted that melanosomes (the organelles that harbor pigments, giving feathers their colors) were absent after heating for ten years at 630°F. On this basis, they conclude that paleontologists have made a mistake when they interpret microbodies as melanosomes in fossilized feathers. Instead, they think that the mirobodies derive from microbes.

This reinterpretation is good news for keratin preservation on two accounts. It is true that microbial activity can destroy soft tissues, but the NC State scientists think it can also help speed up the fossilization process leading to the preservation of keratin remnants. How? Because microbes secrete materials (called exopolymeric substances) that promote deposition of minerals, speeding up the entombment of the soft tissue. Additionally, the NC State researchers think that melanosome degradation may also be important. When these organelles break down, they release their contents (eumelanin) which may function like a fixative, slowing down tissue degradation long enough for the soft tissue to be entombed.

The NC State study has unearthed fascinating details regarding feather decomposition and provides key insights that help account for the persistence of keratin in fossilized remains of reptiles, birds, and feathered dinosaurs that date to tens of millions of years old.

Resources
Structure of Collagen Unravels the Case for a Young Earth” by Fazale Rana (Article)
Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth by Fazale Rana (Book)

Endnotes

  1. Alison Moyer, Wenxia Zheng, and Mary Schweitzer, “Keratin Durability Has Implications for the Fossil Record: Results from a 10 Year Feather Degradation Experiment,” PLoS One 11 (July 2016): e0157699, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157699.
  2. Fazale Rana, Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2016), 57–58.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/08/10/can-keratin-in-feathers-survive-for-millions-of-years

The Evolution of the Automobile: Evidence for Intelligent Design

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BY FAZALE RANA – AUGUST 3, 2016

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”

As the story goes, baseball player and manager Yogi Berra first uttered this famous yogi-ism sitting in the dugout watching Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs. Something that happened on more than one occasion.

Yogi Berra’s verbal blunders are legendary. But, perhaps none top the blunder made by biologist Tim Berra. Berra’s blunder didn’t have anything to do with what he said, but with what he wrote in his book Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, published in 1990.

Berra’s Blunder

Targeting a nontechnical audience, Berra presented a case for biological evolution and explained why he and so many scientists think evolution is a fact. As part of this project, he described the evidence for human evolution, highlighting the progressive features of the hominid fossil record. Berra argues,

“If the australopithecines, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus were alive today, and if we could parade them before the world, there could be no doubt about our relatedness to them. It would be like attending an auto show. If you look at a 1953 Corvette and compare it to the latest model, only the most general resemblances are evident, but if you compare a 1953 and a 1954 Corvette, side by side, then a 1954 and 1955 model, and so on, the descent with modification is overwhelmingly obvious. This is what paleontologists do with fossils, and the evidence is so solid and comprehensive that it cannot be denied by reasonable people.”1

In comparing Corvette models with “transitional intermediates” in the fossil record, Berra made a significant error that has become known among creationists and ID proponents as Berra’s blunder. It almost goes without saying, Berra’s mistake was to use Corvettes—machines designed by automotive engineers—as an analogy for the hominid fossil record, claiming that sequential anatomical changes among the various hominid species reflect the outworking of an unguided evolutionary process in the same way that sequential design changes to Corvettes reflect the evolution of technology. But, as pointed out at that time by several creationists and intelligent design proponents, the Corvette sequence actually tells us something about how intelligent agents sometimes create: namely, designers can attain their goals by progressively modifying existing designs. To put it another way, the chronological appearance of organisms in the fossil record displaying serial changes to their anatomical, physiological, and behavioral features could be explained as the work of a Creator who was successively producing creatures that displayed modifications of an archetypical design. In this sense, the fossil record doesn’t necessarily compel reasonable people to accept biological evolution any more than does the evolution of the American automobile.

The sequential changes seen in the fossil record just as reasonably reflect the work of a mind as mechanism.

Déjà Vu Once More

Recently, researchers from UCLA made the same blunder as Tim Berra—all over again!2 These investigators wanted to understand the principles that influence the tempo and mode for technology development in a society. As a case study, these investigators examined the appearance and disappearance of American car and truck models manufactured between 1896 (when automobiles were first produced) and 2014, using the same approach that paleontologists might use to study the fossil record. Specifically, they monitored the year-by-year diversity of automobile models, paying special attention to the number of new models that were produced (analogous to speciation) each year and the number of discontinued models (analogous to extinction).

These researchers also explored the factors influencing the diversity of automobile models each year. Particularly, they assessed the effects of competition, and the impact of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and oil prices.

Their analysis indicates that the “origination” and “extinction” rates of automobile models displayed highly similar patterns over the course of the last 118 years. In both cases, origination and extinction rates were highest early in the automobile’s history, gradually declining to lower rates over time. The rates of decline dramatically slowed in the 1960s when the Big Three auto manufacturers rose to dominance in the American market place. Since the 1980s, the rate of automobile model extinction has outpaced the appearance rate of new models. However, during this time frame, the lifespan of automobile models has significantly increased.

The UCLA researchers also discovered that completion has had a much greater influence on automobile diversity than GDP and oil prices.

Based on these results, the authors of this study argue that when a technology is in its early stages, manufacturers introduce more experimental designs into the marketplace. But because these designs are experimental, they also disappear more rapidly. They maintain that the appearance and disappearance rates slow as dominant designs emerge. When that happens, it becomes too costly to introduce experimental models into the marketplace. Eventually, cost becomes such a significant factor that it causes the life expectancy of designs to persist for longer time periods.

Based on this study, the UCLA scientists predict that in the near future the number of hybrid and electric car designs will rapidly diversify—a radiation event, of sorts—because these technologies are in their nascent stages.

The Fossil Record and the Case for Creation

The UCLA researchers demonstrated that some of the techniques paleontologists use to study the fossil record—and hence, the history of life on Earth—can yield important insights about the way cultures and technologies change and develop. However, as with Berra’s blunder, they treated designed objects as if they were fossils, which, according to the evolutionary paradigm, are produced by unguided, mechanistic processes. The approach the UCLA research team used to study technology development, once again, highlights the fact that the sequential changes seen in the fossil record just as reasonably reflect the work of a mind as mechanism.

But, it is possible to take the implications of their work one step further. Not only can we argue that the progressive anatomical changes observed in fossilized organisms reflect the Creator’s handiwork, but so do overall patterns in the fossil record. The UCLA study demonstrates that when it comes to technology produced by human designers, the number of design variants and the rate that designs appear and disappear from the marketplace have a rational basis. Though the rationale may be different than what the UCLA researchers discovered for the automobile’s evolution, it becomes all the more reasonable to view changes in biological diversity and origination and extinction rates in the fossil record as reflecting a Creator’s intentional activity.

In other words, the evidence (the fossil record and homology) that biologists insist provides compelling support for the evolutionary paradigm actually finds ready explanation from a creation model perspective.

Resources

Archetype or Ancestor? Sir Richard Owen and the Case for Design” by Fazale Rana (Article)

Endnotes
  1. Tim Berra, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 117.
  2. Erik Gjesfjeld et al., “Competition and Extinction Explain the Evolution of Diversity in American Automobiles,” Palgrave Communications 2 (May 2016): 16019, doi:10.1057/palcomms.2016.19.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/08/03/the-evolution-of-the-automobile-evidence-for-intelligent-design

Science News Flash: Are Humans Still Evolving?

sciencenewsflasharehumansstillevolving

BY FAZALE RANA – AUGUST 1, 2016

Are human beings divinely created? Or are we the product of an evolutionary history? Or both?

Nearly everyone has some interest in human origins. And for that reason, it’s not surprising that discoveries in anthropology frequently garner headlines and serve as fodder for popular science pieces.

Recently, paleoanthropologist John Hawks from the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote an excellent piece for the August 2016 edition of The Scientist entitled, “Humans Never Stopped Evolving.” In this article, Hawks discusses a number of recent studies that identify natural selection at work in human beings and presents scientific updates on several well-known examples of evolutionary changes in humans, such as the ability to digest milk sugar and the origin of regional differences (racial diversity).

In all cases, the underlying implication is: If we observe human evolution happening before our eyes—time and time again—then we have clear-cut evidence that human beings evolved. But is that really the case? Is that the proper conclusion to draw from these scientific observations?

I would say, no.

From a creationist perspective, that the ability of humans (and other creatures) to adapt through microevolutionary change is evidence for God’s provision and providence.

The evolutionary changes described by Hawks are merely examples of microevolutionarychanges—variation within a species. In fact, it could be argued from a creationist perspective that the ability of humans (and other creatures) to adapt through microevolutionary change is evidence for God’s provision and providence.

Hawks’ examples of human evolution fall into the same category as (1) the acquisition of antibiotic resistance by bacteria; (2) the development of pesticide and herbicide resistance by insects and plants; (3) the change in wing color of the peppered moth; and (4) the variation in beak shape by the finches on the Galapagos Islands.

These common examples of evolutionary changes are often cited as evidence for biological evolution. Microevolutionary changes, however, don’t necessarily extend to support macroevolutionary changes (the creation of biological novelty through undirected evolutionary processes). And there are many reasons—see Who Was Adam?—to be skeptical of evolutionary explanations for the origin of humanity.

Evidence for human microevolution does not constitute evidence for human evolution.

Resources
Evidence That Humans Are Evolving Is Not Evidence for Human Evolution” by Fazale Rana (Article)
Human Evolution Speeding Up” (Podcast)
Modern Life’s Pressures May Be Hastening Human Evolution” (Podcast)
Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (Book)
RTB Live! Vol. 15: Exploring the Origin of the Races with Fazale Rana (DVD)

Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/08/01/science-news-flash-are-humans-still-evolving