Science News Flash: First Three-Parent Baby Born

sciencenewsflashfirstthreebabyparent

BY FAZALE RANA – SEPTEMBER 29, 2016

Shocking headlines from around the world have announced the first-ever birth of a baby with three parents (two mothers and one father)!

The research team who carried out this work will report the details about the conception and birth of this child at next month’s meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, to be held in Salt Lake City.1

Born to Muslim parents, this baby was conceived without destroying any embryos in the process. Fertilization took place in a test tube using the father’s sperm cells and a donor’s egg. Prior to fertilization, the researchers removed the nucleus from the donor’s egg and replaced it with the nucleus from one of the mother’s egg cells. In other words, the fertilized egg had genetic material from two women. The nuclear DNA came from the mother-to-be and the DNA in the egg’s mitochondria came from the donor.

This procedure ensured that the child would be free from the devastating effects of a mutated gene in the mother’s mitochondrial DNA that causes Leigh syndrome.

This procedure holds the potential to eradicate hundreds of genetic disorders caused by mutations to mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria play a key role in energy production for the cell. If these organelles aren’t healthy, it can lead to a number of devastating neurodegenerative and muscular degenerative disorders.

How should Christians think about this exciting new biotechnology? Is it ethical? Will it lead to designer babies? Should we play God?

My answers to these questions might surprise you…

For details about this technique and my thoughts on how Christians should respond to this biomedical discovery, check out the February 25, 2014 edition of Science News Flash(podcast).

Resources

Designer Babies?” by Fazale Rana (podcast)

Endnotes

  1. J. Zhang et al., “First Live Birth Using Human Oocytes Reconstituted by Spindle Nuclear Transfer for Mitochondrial DNA Mutation Causing Leigh Syndrome,” Fertility and Sterility 106 (September 2016): e375–e376, doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2016.08.004.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/09/29/science-news-flash-first-three-parent-baby-born

Did Neanderthals Make Jewelry?

didneanderthalsmakejewelry

BY FAZALE RANA – SEPTEMBER 28, 2016

I was a troublemaker in high school. And that meant I spent more than my fair share of time in Mr. Reynold’s office—our school’s vice principal.

It wasn’t long before we developed a bit of a dance that played out each time I was summoned to his office. Mr. Reynolds would accuse me of some misdeed (for which he usually had ample evidence) and I would respond with an elaborate defense, hoping to convince him of my innocence. I quickly learned that if my excuse was to stick, every detail of my story had to hang together.

A few days ago, I was reminded of my conversations with Mr. Reynolds when I learned about recent work by a large team of collaborators from the US, UK, Germany, and France. Based on their research efforts, these paleoanthropologists claim to have new evidence that Neanderthals produced body ornaments and, hence, possessed the capacity for symbolism and advanced cognitive abilities—just like us.1 Yet, this story doesn’t hang together when considering other details about Neanderthal biology and natural history.

Take it from someone who has experience concocting stories—the claim that Neanderthals displayed symbolism doesn’t pan out.

The Grotte du Renne Cave Site

During a recent visit to the well-studied Grotte du Renne cave site in central France, these research collaborators unearthed previously unknown hominid bone fragments. These pieces of bones were morphologically nondescript. Yet these investigators found the bones to be highly informative, thanks to the application of newly developed, sophisticated techniques that allowed them to characterize ancient protein and mitochondrial DNA fragments associated with the bones. These ancient biomolecules indicated that the bones came from a Neanderthal infant.

This discovery is significant because these newly discovered bone fragments were recovered in the same layers that contain beads made from animal teeth, shells, and ivory. These “necklaces” serve as markers for symbolic capacity—a property that many people think defines modern humans. Symbolic capacity is a behavioral feature that causes a number of anthropologists to think that modern humans are behaviorally unique and exceptional.

The Grotte du Renne site contains 15 archaeological layers spanning about 12 feet in depth. Neanderthals and modern humans occupied this cave at various times between 28,000–45,000 years ago. The top layers—which are the most recent—contain artifacts produced by modern humans. However, the most interesting layers are VIII, IX, and X. These layers contain Neanderthal remains, with layer X harboring markers for symbolism. This layer dates to about 40,000 years in age. If this data is accepted at face value, it indicates that these hominids evolved the capacity for symbolic behavior and possessed advanced cognitive abilities just before their extinction.

Neanderthals appeared about 250,000 years ago and became extinct around 40,000+ years ago. The archaeological record indicates that for most of their existence Neanderthals behaved in a relatively unsophisticated manner compared to modern humans. (This behavior is described as the Mousterian culture.) However, based on the findings from the Grotte du Renne, some paleoanthropologists have argued that around 40,000 years ago—the time of modern humans’ arrival in Europe and right before Neanderthals’ disappearance—these hominids evolved the capacity for modern behavior and with it, symbolic thought. (Paleoanthropologists refer to this behavior as the Châtelperronian culture.)

Neanderthal Symbolism and the RTB Human Origins Model

The existence of the Châtelperronian culture means that modern humans aren’t behaviorally unique. From an evolutionary vantage point, it implies that advanced cognitive abilities evolved independently in modern humans and Neanderthals (with the antecedents for symbolism residing with the direct evolutionary ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals).

If this insight stands, it undermines the view of humanity espoused by Scripture—namely, that human beings uniquely bear God’s image—and, specifically the RTB human origins model (detailed in the expanded and updated edition of Who Was Adam?), which regards symbolism as an aspect of the image of God.

So what did this research team discover and what conclusions can they legitimately draw from their discoveries?

It is also worth noting that every previous claim for Neanderthal symbolism from the archaeological record has failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.

Characterization of the Grotte du Renne Bone Fragments

The research team saw the discovery of the morphologically indistinct bone fragments in layer X as an opportunity to try out new methods they recently developed, designed to recover and characterize ancient protein fragments from fossil specimens. They hope that these fragments (which are much more likely to be present in ancient bones than DNA) will provide insight into the taxonomic identity of the bone fragments, but also help scientists gain insight into the biology and natural history of ancient organisms. (The study of ancient proteins is called paleoproteomics).

Early work in paleoproteomics demonstrates that fragments of certain forms of collagen can be used to identify large bodied genera. These researchers extracted proteins from 196 bone fragments found in layer X. Of those, 28 possessed a collagen fingerprint that identified them as coming from a hominid.

The researchers then extracted more than 70 different proteins from 3 of the 28 bone pieces. As is true for all studies involving ancient biomolecules, contamination by biomolecules from the environment and human handlers is a real concern. Because of this complication, the researchers employed an elaborate set of steps to discriminate endogenous proteins from contaminants, including:

  • Analyzing extraction blanks: Proteins found in both the blanks and samples must be contaminants introduced in the handling of the bones.
  • Assessing chemical alteration of proteins: As proteins age, they undergo characteristic chemical changes (such as glutamine and asparagine deamidation). Proteins that don’t show these transformations must be contaminants.
  • Searching protein databases: The researchers compared the amino acid sequences of the extracted proteins with amino acid sequences of proteins produced by nonhuman animals. Matches were taken as contaminants.

Through this process, the researchers discovered a number of collagens and non-collagen proteins that appeared to be authentic. Many of these extracted proteins are produced by cells during bone growth. Isotope analysis of collagen extracted from the hominid bones indicate that they came from an individual whose chief diet was breast milk. On this basis, the researchers concluded that the fragments were from an infant. They then found that the amino acid sequences of the extracted collagens matched collagen amino acid sequences found in both Neanderthals and Denisovans. (The researchers deduced the amino acid sequences of hominid collagens from the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes.)

Additionally, the researchers recovered mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from one of the bone pieces. The sequence of this DNA aligns with Neanderthal mtDNA, providing confirmatory evidence that the bone fragments came from a Neanderthal.

Finally, the researchers used carbon-14 dating of extracted collagen to determine the age of the bone pieces at 37,000–39,000 years bp (before the present).

On the basis of all of these results, they concluded that the bone pieces came from a Neanderthal infant that was buried in the cave around 38,000 years ago, and more broadly that Neanderthals produced the “necklace beads” found in layer X.

It is important to point out that this is not the first time anthropologists have arrived at this conclusion. Anthropologists have long had evidence from morphologically informative fossils for the co-occurrence of Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts in layer X. The novelty of this work centers around the power of paleoproteomics and ancient DNA analysis to provide key insight into the identity of fossil remains and the natural history of ancient creatures.

Did Neanderthals Display Symbolism?

Does the co-occurrence of Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts in layer X provide evidence for Neanderthal behavior on par with modern humans? It can, but this conclusion has to align with everything else we know about Neanderthal biology and behavior—and it doesn’t.

For example, previous work by other archaeologists at the Grotte du Renne has demonstrated that the layers in this cave have been mixed. It appears as if past occupants dug into the cave floor, turning over the cave layers. This activity means that the association between Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts could merely be coincidental.

In the face of this challenge, paleoanthropologists could argue that the 37,000–39,000-year-old date of the remains in layer X (determined in the latest study)—which matches the age of the symbolic artifacts—indicates that mixing didn’t impact layer X. Yet within the past few years, paleoanthropologists have shown that carbon-14 dating of Neanderthal remains has been plagued by carbon-14 contaminants, which renders their measured ages younger than they actually are. Improved methodology (designed to remove these contaminants) places Neanderthal extinction around 45,000+ years bp. This well-known contamination issue raises questions about the dating of the Grotte du Renne specimens, leaving open the real possibility that the Neanderthal remains are much older than 38,000 years in age. If so, it makes it likely that mixing of the cave layers did, indeed, occur.

Apart from the mixing of the Grotte du Renne cave layers and questions about the dating of the Neanderthal remains in layer X, the most significant reason for skepticism about claims regarding Neanderthals’ symbolic capabilities centers around what we have learned about the anatomy and physiology of this hominid’s brain.

Collectively, these observations indicate that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans. It is hard to square these biological differences with claims that Neanderthals displayed symbolism.

It is true: Neanderthals had a brain size comparable to modern humans (maybe even slightly larger), but as I point out in Who Was Adam?, the body mass of Neanderthals was larger than modern humans. Anthropologists think that the ratio of brain size to body mass is a better indicator of intelligence than brain size alone. This ratio is called the encephalization quotient (EQ). The EQ of modern humans is greater than that of Neanderthals, indicating that these hominids were cognitively inferior to modern humans.

More importantly, the brain structures of modern human and Neanderthals differ. As discussed in Who Was Adam?, Neanderthals possessed an underdeveloped parietal lobe compared to modern humans. This part of the brain plays a role in processing information that supports language and mathematical reasoning. Also, Neanderthals devoted a greater region of their brain to vision and body control than modern humans. This would have left a smaller portion of the brain available for advanced cognition. Paleoanthropologists have determined that blood flow to Neanderthal brains was significantly lower compared to modern humans, implying that these hominids inherently lacked the capacity to support the same high level of interneuronal connectivity and synaptic activity as modern humans.

As discussed in Who Was Adam?, comparisons of modern human and Neanderthal genomes also reveal differences in genes involved in neuronal development. This result helps explain the morphological differences between modern human and Neanderthal brains.

I also point out that studies of Neanderthal dental microanatomy reveal that these creatures had a rapid, practically nonexistent adolescence. This rapid maturation leaves little time for brain development to occur after birth like it does in modern humans.

Collectively, these observations indicate that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans. It is hard to square these biological differences with claims that Neanderthals displayed symbolism.

Finally, it is worth noting that every previous claim for Neanderthal symbolism from the archaeological record has failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.2 It is unclear if Neanderthals buried their dead, and if they did, these burials most certainly were not ritualistic. Claims of Neanderthal music and art haven’t panned out, and there is no concrete evidence that Neanderthals had language capacity.

Take it from someone who has experience concocting stories, the claim that Neanderthals displayed symbolism doesn’t hang together. Anthropologists who claim otherwise should be sent to detention during their lunch hour.

What if the association between Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts proves true? There are other ways to explain their co-occurrence. Because Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted for a brief period of time in Europe, it could be that Neanderthals “appropriated” modern human artifacts and carried them to their cave sites. Given everything we know about Neanderthal brain anatomy, this is a much better story than one that has Neanderthals possessing symbolic capabilities.

Resources
Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (book)
Paleoanthropologists Mixed Up about Neanderthal Behavior” by Fazale Rana (article)
The Latest on Neanderthal Extinctions” by Fazale Rana (article)
Did Neanderthals Make Art?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead with Flowers?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Do Neanderthal Cave Structures Challenge Human Exceptionalism?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Neanderthal Brains Make Them Unlikely Social Networkers” by Fazale Rana (article)
Blood Flow to Brain Contributes to Human Exceptionalism” by Fazale Rana (article)
Human, Neanderthal Brains Only Differ after Birth” by Fazale Rana (podcast)

Endnotes

  1. Frido Welker et al., “Palaeoproteomic Evidence Identifies Archaic Hominins Associated with the Châtelperronian at the Grotte du Renne,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, published electronically September 16, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1605834113.
  2. For more details, see the articles listed in the resource section of this piece and the expanded and updated edition of Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/09/28/did-neanderthals-make-jewelry

Blood Flow to Brain Contributes to Human Exceptionalism

bloodflowtobraincontributes

BY FAZALE RANA – SEPTEMBER 21, 2016

Are human beings exceptional? Are we unique, as the Bible teaches?

Recent work by paleoanthropologists from Australia adds to the mounting scientific evidence for human exceptionalism. These scientists demonstrate that modern humans have an unusually high rate of blood flow to our brains, compared to other primates, including the hominids represented in the fossil record.1 They argue that the increased blood flow to the human brain reflects an unusually high level of: (1) neuron-neuron connectivity; and (2) synaptic activity. Ultimately, these enhanced capabilities support the uniquely advanced cognitive capacity displayed by modern humans. To put it differently, the increased blood flow to the modern human brain helps account for the cognitive differences between humans and the other hominids, including Neanderthals.

This research helps support a key prediction of RTB’s human origins model (derived from the biblical text) by demonstrating a fundamental difference between humans and Neanderthals.

Measuring Blood Flow to Hominid Brains

To establish the relative blood flow to the brains of modern humans and hominids, the researchers measured the radius of the opening of two holes at the base of the skull that serve as the entryway for the internal carotid arteries. These blood vessels accommodate about 85 percent of the blood flow to the human brain. These arteries also give rise to the middle cerebral arteries (which supply the lateral portions of the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes) and the anterior cerebral arteries (which supply the medial parts of the frontal, and parietal lobes).

 

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Image: Internal Carotid Artery. Credit: Wikipedia

These holes in the skull exclusively provide the conduits for the internal carotid arteries. No accompanying nerves or veins pass through these openings. Blood flow and blood pressure controls the radius and the wall thickness of the arteries, making the size of these openings a reasonable proxy for blood flow to the brain.

Performing measurements only for complete and undamaged skull openings, the researchers determined the radius of the carotid openings for 34 hominid specimens, representing 12 species, including:

  • africanus (8 specimens)
  • afarensis (3 specimens)
  • boisei (1 specimen)
  • habilis (1 specimen)
  • naledi (1 specimen)
  • rudolfensis (1 specimen)
  • georgicus (1 specimen)
  • erectus (5 specimens)
  • heidelbergensis (2 specimens)
  • neanderthalensis (5 specimens)
  • floresiensis (1 specimen)
  • Archaic sapiens (5 specimens)

Brain Blood Flow in Hominids

In lower primates, neuron numbers increase with brain mass in a linear manner (because neurons occupy a constant volume). Measurements made in a previous study for 34 haplorhine primates saw brain blood flow scaling with brain volume.

But the researchers observed something different for the hominids. While the blood flow to the brain scaled with increases in brain volume for the Australopithecines and early Homospecies, a different pattern was observed for H. erectusH. heidelbergensis, and Neanderthals. Increases in cerebral blood grew at a faster pace than expected based on increases in brain size.

For modern humans, the increase in cerebral blood flow maxes out, even departing further from the trend line observed for the late appearing Homo species. To put it another way, modern humans (H. sapiens sapiens) stand as an outlier, with an unusually high cerebral blood flow, even compared to Neanderthals.

Differences in Brain Blood Flow between Humans and Neanderthals

The primate brain possesses an extremely high aerobic demand, requiring prodigious amounts of oxygen. For modern humans, the brain is responsible for 25 percent of our resting metabolic activity. The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients (such as glucose). The disproportionate blood flow to the human brain reflects the high level of interneuronal activity and synaptic transmissions between nerve cells.

Even though Neanderthals had roughly the same brain size as modern humans, the cerebral blood flow to their brain was significantly lower. This observation implies that these hominids inherently lacked the capacity to support the same high level of interneuronal connectivity and synaptic activity as modern humans. This result lines up with a wide range of other findings (detailed in the expanded and updated edition of Who Was Adam?) indicating Neanderthals had limited cognitive capacity compared to modern humans. Collectively, these results justify skepticism regarding claims that these creatures possessed symbolic capability (language, art, music, body ornamentation, etc.).

Brain Blood Flow and Implications for Human Uniqueness

This research helps support a key prediction of RTB’s human origins model (derived from the biblical text) by demonstrating a fundamental difference between humans and Neanderthals. Instead of viewing hominids as evolutionary transitional forms, RTB’s biblical model holds that hominids, including Neanderthals, were animals made by God. They possessed intelligence and emotional capacity, but lacked the image of God—a quality associated only with anatomically modern humans (Genesis 1:26–27). Therefore, we expect that Neanderthals would have displayed behavior that is qualitatively different from, and inferior to, that of modern humans. This study provides confirmation of this expectation.

This study also provides scientific support for the biblical teaching that human beings are uniquely made in God’s image. If human beings truly are image bearers, then we should expect that scientific data would emerge for human exceptionalism, and it has in a way that aligns with the biblical perspective of humanity’s unique cognitive and behavioral capacities.

Resources
Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (book)
Neanderthal Brains Make Them Unlikely Social Networkers” by Fazale Rana (article)
Did Neanderthals Make Art?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead with Flowers?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Do Neanderthal Cave Structures Challenge Human Exceptionalism?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Human, Neanderthal Brains Only Differ after Birth” by Fazale Rana (podcast)

Endnotes

  1. Roger Seymour, Vanya Bosiocic, and Edward Snelling, “Fossil Skulls Reveal that Blood Flow Rate to the Brain Increased Faster than Brain Volume during Human Evolution,” Royal Society Open Science 3 (August 2016): 160305, doi:10.1089/rsos.160305.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/09/21/blood-flow-to-brain-contributes-to-human-exceptionalism

Does the Evolutionary Paradigm Stymie Scientific Advance?

doestheevolutionaryparadigmstymie

BY FAZALE RANA – SEPTEMBER 12, 2016

A common challenge I often hear is that creationism and intelligent design are showstoppers for science. If we conclude that “God did it,” skeptics complain, “wouldn’t that shut down scientific inquiry?”

A few years ago, I had a brief email exchange with a prominent origin-of-life researcher who sincerely raised that concern:

“I would be interested in how you think the creation model approach . . . will lead to scientific advance. Your book Origins of Life clearly showed that science does not have all the answers to how life may have begun, and of course I agree with that conclusion. What this means to me is that we have some beautiful open questions to work on to try to find the answers. But in your book, at the end of each chapter, you typically ended with the creationist answer to open questions: God did it. This is what I meant by stopping the questioning process. If the answer is that God did it, where do we go from there?”

I responded to this concern elsewhere, but, at this juncture, I would like to point out that the evolutionary paradigm can also shut down scientific inquiry, delaying the discovery of key scientific insights, and often with important biomedical implications.

The evolutionary paradigm can also shut down scientific inquiry, delaying the discovery of key scientific insights, and often with important biomedical implications.

This point is powerfully illustrated by the latest work by a team of researchers from Duke University.1 These investigators demonstrated that the highly repetitive satellite DNAassociated with centromeres displays function.

Repetitive DNA in Evolutionary and Creation Models

From within the evolutionary framework, this discovery was unexpected. Most molecular biologists have long viewed highly repetitive DNA sequences as nonfunctional. In fact, much of the satellite DNA sequences in the human genome (which comprise 10 percent of the genetic makeup of humans) have been ignored by the research community, because of the influence of the evolutionary paradigm. These sequences have long been regarded as the leftover vestiges of an unguided, evolutionary history.

A press release from Duke University describing this latest work acknowledges this omission: “Even though the sequence of the human genome was declared complete more than a decade ago, it retains several glaring gaps, especially in the repetitive sequences around centromeres.”2

Sequencing highly repetitive DNA sequences is extremely challenging, to be sure. And this is part of the reason for the gaps in the human genome sequence. But, because of the influence of the evolutionary paradigm, few, if any, biologists thought these repetitive sequences were anything other than junk. Viewing satellite DNA as junk took away any motivation on the part of molecular biologists to “plow ahead” and try to determine these recalcitrant DNA sequences.

On the other hand, a creation model/intelligent design perspective predicts that nearly all of the DNA sequences found within the human genome would display function—including highly repetitive satellite DNA sequences. And this prediction is satisfied by the latest insights from the Duke research team.

To be fair, the Duke researchers were working from an evolutionary framework. So, why were they studying satellite DNA, if other life scientists chose to ignore these sequences? The researchers from Duke University were trying to understand the structure-function relationships of centromeres.

Centromeres

These chromosomal regions are made up of highly repetitive DNA dubbed alpha satellite DNA and comprise about 5 percent of the human genomes. Centromeres serve as the attachment site for replicated chromosomes during the cell division process.

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Image: 3-D Chromosome Illustration.

The alpha satellite DNA of centromeres displays several layers of organization that are built upon a 171 base pair (bp) unit called a monomer. In turn, these monomers are repeated numerous times to form higher order repeats (HORs). The size of the HOR is specific for each of the 22 autosomes and 2 sex chromosomes that comprise the human genome. For example, the HOR of chromosome X consists of 12 monomers, while the HOR of chromosome 8 is made up of six monomers. The next level of organization, called HOR arrays, arises from the extensively repeated occurrence of HORs.

There can be two or more HOR arrays within centromeres. For example, chromosome 17—the subject of the Duke University study—possesses two HOR arrays, dubbed D17Z1 and D17Z1-B.

Proteins comprising the kinetochore bind to one or the other HOR array on chromosome 17. (The kinetochore protein complex binds to the centromere, serving as an attachment site for the mitotic spindle, which pulls apart the sister chromosomes during cell division.)

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Image: Mitotic Spindle. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As it turns out, for 70 percent of people, the centromere assembles at the D17Z1 site of chromosome 17 for both sister chromosomes. For 30 percent, centromere assembly occurs at the D17Z1 site for one of the sister chromosomes and at the D17Z1-B site of the other.

Variations in the Repetitive DNA of Centromeres

In an attempt to determine why one site is used for centromere assembly as opposed to the other, the researchers from Duke University discovered sequence and size variations for the monomers used to build the HOR arrays. And this variation plays a key role in dictating the site for centromere assembly. They also discovered that some sequence and size variants display a loss of functional competency. In other words, this variability can cause the chromosome to become unstable and/or the mitotic spindle fails to properly form. The researchers think that these failures may lead to increased risks of cancer, birth defects, and infertility.

If the instability becomes too great, the centromere will assemble at alternate HOR array sites, explaining why (for 30 percent of the population) centromere assembly occurs at different sites for the sister chromosomes of human chromosome 17.

Repetitive DNA Displays Function

This work indicates that repetitive DNA sequences within the human genome do, indeed, possess functional attributes, just as creationists and intelligent design adherents have predicted. And the researchers think that their insight is only the beginning. Beth Sullivan, the senior researcher for the project stated:

“What we found in this study is probably the tip of the iceberg. There could be all sorts of functional consequences to having variation within the complex, repetitive portion of the genome that we don’t know about yet.”3

Implications for Evolutionary and Creation Models

Many regard the shared “junk DNA” sequences in the genomes of humans and the Great Apes as the most compelling evidence for evolution. When the human genome sequence was first reported in the early 2000s, geneticists estimated that at least 95 percent of human DNA sequences are junk.

Over the last decade, discovery after discovery has demonstrated that many classes of junk DNA display function. In fact, the ENCODE project indicates that a vast proportion of the human genome is functional, not junk.

Yet, many evolutionary biologists reject the results of the ENCODE project, insisting that this research effort has mistakenly assigned function to many of the human genome DNA sequences. Why are evolutionary biologists skeptical of the ENCODE project results? Because, if these results are valid, then the evolutionary paradigm can’t be correct.

Recent work by Duke University scientists demonstrates that, in spite of skepticism over the ENCODE project results, researchers continue to discover new functions for junk DNA. It turns out that these repetitive sequences serve a role in the process of cell division, expanding the role of junk DNA beyond regulating gene expression.

But in spite of these discoveries, many evolutionary biologists doggedly cling to the view that junk DNA must be nonfunctional because of their deep-seated commitment to the evolutionary paradigm. All of this makes me wonder:

Is the skepticism about the functional utility of junk DNA—fueled by the demands of the evolutionary paradigm—a science stopper?

Resources

Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (book)
Q&A: Is Christianity a Science Showstopper?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Responding to ENCODE ‘Skeptics‘” by Fazale Rana (article)
Do Scientists Accept the Results of the ENCODE Project?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Is Most of Our DNA Garbage?” by Fazale Rana (podcast)

Endnotes
  1. Megan E Aldrup-MacDonald et al., “Genomic Variation within Alpha Satellite DNA Influences Centromere Location on Human Chromosomes with Metastable Epialleles,” Genome Research, published electronically August 10, 2016, doi:10.1101/gr.206706.116.
  2. Marla Vacek Broadfoot, “Variation in ‘Junk’ DNA Leads to Trouble,” Duke Today (blog), Duke University, August 30, 2016, https://today.duke.edu/2016/08/variation-%E2%80%9Cjunk%E2%80%9D-dna-leads-trouble.
  3. Ibid.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/09/12/does-the-evolutionary-paradigm-stymie-scientific-advance

Science News Flash: 3.7-Billion-Year-Old Fossils Perplex Origin-of-Life Researchers

sciencenewsflash3.7billionyearoldfossils

BY FAZALE RANA – SEPTEMBER 7, 2016

Good things can come from bad circumstances.

This idea is beautifully illustrated by the research efforts of a team of Australian scientists. Climate change has triggered the excessive melting of ice and snow in western Greenland. This loss of snow and ice concerns many people, but, on the other hand, it has been a boon for the scientific community. It has exposed a new outcropping of rocks, giving geologists first-time access to a rare window of the earth’s distant past. As it turns out, these rocks harbor what appears to be the oldest fossils on Earth—stromatolites that date to around 3.7 billion years in age.1

billion-year-old-fossils-perplex-origin-of-life-researchers-1Image: Stromatolites in western Australia

This latest insight has important implications for understanding the origin of life. In fact, on the day researchers from Australia reported this discovery in scientific literature, it made headlines in news outlets around the world.2

Evidence for Early Life on Earth

As Hugh Ross and I discuss in Origins of Life, geochemists have unearthed a number of chemical markers in the Isua Supracrustal Belt (ISB) of western Greenland that strongly hint at microbial life on Earth between 3.7 and 3.8 billion years ago. But origin-of-life researchers debate the bio-authenticity of these geochemical signatures, because a number of potential abiotic processes can produce similar geochemical profiles.

Most scientists doubted that fossils would ever be unearthed in the Isua rock formations because these outcrops have undergone extensive metamorphosis, experiencing high temperatures and pressures—conditions that would destroy fossils. But these newly exposed formations contain regions that have experienced only limited metamorphosis, making it possible for fossils to survive.

Careful microscopic and chemical characterization of the Isua stromatolites affirms their biogenecity. These analyses also indicate that they formed in shallow water marine environments.

These recently discovered stromatolites (and the previously detected geochemical life signatures in the Isua formations) indicate that a complex and diverse ecology of microorganisms existed on Earth as far back as 3.7 billion years ago.

Prior to the discovery of 3.7 billion-year-old stromatolites, origin-of-life researchers widely agreed that microbial life existed on Earth around 3.4–3.5 billion years ago, based on the recovery of stromatolites, microbial mats, microfossils, and geochemical signatures in rock formations found in western Australia. Many origin-of-life researchers have expressed amazement that complex microbial ecologies were present on Earth as early as 3.4 billion years ago. For example, paleontologist J. William Schopf marveled:

“No one had foreseen that the beginning of life occurred so astonishingly early.”3

The researchers who recovered and analyzed the Isua stromatolites expressed similar surprise:

“The complexity and setting of the Isua stromatolites points to sophistication in life systems at 3,700 million years ago, similar to that displayed by 3,480–3,400 million-year-old Pilbara stromatolites.”4

From a naturalistic perspective, the only way for these researchers to make sense of this discovery is to conclude that life must have originated prior to 4 billion years ago. They state: “This implies that by ~3,700 million years ago life already had a considerable prehistory, and supports model organism chronology that life arose during the Hadean (>4,000 million years ago).”5

Implications for Evolutionary Models

However, the researchers’ explanation for the appearance of a complex, diverse microbial ecosystem at 3.7 billion years ago is problematic, when the natural history of early Earth is considered.

Traditionally, planetary scientists have viewed the early Earth as hot and molten, from the time of its formation (4.5 billion years ago) until ~3.8 billion years ago. This era of Earth’s history is called the Hadean. Accordingly, oceans were not present on early Earth until around 3.8 billion years ago. They believe a number of factors contributed to the hellish environment of our early planet, chief of which were the large impactors striking the earth’s surface. Some of these impact events would have been so energetic that they would have volatilized any liquid water on the planet’s surface and rendered the surface and subsurface as a molten state. In light of this scenario, it would be impossible for life to originate much earlier than 3.8 billion years ago. To put it another way, if the traditional understanding of early Earth history is correct, then it looks as if complex microbial ecologies appeared on Earth suddenly—within a geological instant. It is impossible to fathom how the explosive appearance of early life could happen via evolutionary mechanisms.

More recently, a number of planetary scientists have proposed that early Earth only remained molten for the first 200–300 million years of its history. After which time, oceans became permanent (or maybe semi-permanent) features on the planet’s surface. The basis for this view has been the discovery of zircon crystals that date between 4.2–4.4 billion years ago. Geochemical signatures within these crystals are consistent with their formation in an aqueous setting, implying that oceans were present on Earth prior to 3.8 billion years ago.

But this revised scenario doesn’t help the evolutionary approach to life’s origin. Around 3.8 billion years ago, a gravitational perturbation in the early solar system sent asteroids towards Earth. Some estimates have the earth experiencing over 17,000 impact events during this time. This event, called the late heavy bombardment (LHB), was originally regarded as a sterilization event. If so, then any life present on Earth prior to the LHB would have been obliterated. That being the case, again, it appears as if complex microbial ecologies appeared on Earth suddenly, within a geological instant.

Recently, some planetary scientists have challenged the notion that the LHB was a sterilization event. They argue that life on the planet’s surface would have been destroyed, but life in some environments, such as hydrothermal vents, could have survived. In other words, there would have been refugiums on Earth that served as “safe houses” for life, ushering it through the LHB.

Yet the latest discovery by the Australian scientists doesn’t fit this scenario. The Isua stromatolites formed at the earth’s surface in a shallow water environment. In fact, the research team generated data that effectively ruled out stromatolite formation near hydrothermal vents. But if the refugium model has validity, the Isua fossils should have formed in a high-temperature milieu.

Finally, pushing life’s origin back to more than 4 billion years ago doesn’t solve the problem of a sudden origin-of-life—it merely displaces it to another window of time in Earth’s history. Origin-of-life researchers have geochemical evidence suggesting that life was present on Earth between 4.2–4.4 billion years ago. Given that the earth was molten for the first 200–300 million years of its existence (minimally), that doesn’t leave much time for life to originate.

No matter the scenario, a naturalistic, evolutionary approach to the origin-of-life can’t seem to accommodate the sudden appearance of life on Earth. On the other hand, if a Creator brought life into being, this is precisely the mode and tempo expected for life’s appearance on Earth.

Implications for Creation Models

While the discovery of 3.7 billion-year-old stromatolites confounds evolutionary explanations for life’s origins, it affirms RTB’s origin-of-life model. This model is derived from the biblical creation accounts and make two key and germane predictions: (1) life should appear on Earth soon after the planet’s formation; and (2) first life should possess intrinsic complexity. And both of these predictions are satisfied by this latest advance.

Resources
Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off by Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross (book)
Creating Life in the Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator by Fazale Rana (book)
Life May Have Begun 300 Million Years Earlier Than We Thought” by Fazale Rana (podcast)
Early Life Was More Complex Than We Thought” by Fazale Rana (article)
When Did Life First Appear on Earth?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Insight into the Late Heavy Bombardment and RTB’s Creation Model” by Fazale Rana (article)
Origin-of-Life Predictions Face Off: Evolution vs. Biblical Creation” by Fazale Rana (article)

Endnotes

  1. Allen P. Nutman et al., “Rapid Emergence of Life Shown by Discovery of 3,700-Million-Year-Old Microbial Structures,” Nature, published electronically August 31, 2016, doi:10.1038/nature19355.
  2. For a detailed discussion of this discovery and its implications for the creation/evolution controversy, listen to “Fossils Indicate Early Life Was Metabolically Complex and Diverse,” Apologia (Ex Libris), podcast audio, August 31, 2016, https://www.reasons.org/podcasts/apologia-premium/fossils-indicate-early-life-was-metabolically-complex-and-diverse.
  3. J. William Schopf, Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 3.
  4. Allen P. Nutman, “Rapid Emergence of Life.”
  5. Ibid.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/09/07/science-news-flash-3.7-billion-year-old-fossils-perplex-origin-of-life-researchers