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"How Life Began" extract - Main Page

#2 - Did God Create Life?
Ask a Protein

by Thomas F. Heinze
 

In school most of us were taught that the first simple cell started when lightening passed through a particular atmosphere and produced amino acids, the building blocks of the main ingredients of cells which are called proteins. These amino acids, according to the schoolbooks, went on to concentrate in the ocean in an organic broth where they linked together to form proteins. These proteins then got together with DNA to form the first simple cell. The idea has not only been popular among atheists, many people who believe in God have been convinced that this must be the way He created life. Not even informed atheists believe this any more!

The amino acids produced in experiments like Miller's, are always half left and half right-handed. The proteins in cells, however, require all left-handed amino acids, otherwise their shape will be wrong and they won't connect properly. It is a bit like when you take a piece out of a puzzle, turn it upside down and try to put it back in where you took it out. It is the same size and shape, but it won't fit. If a protein contains even one right handed amino acid, it usually will not work in living things.

Neither will amino acids concentrate in the ocean. They spread out. Even pure left-handed amino acids, bought on purpose in a chemical supply house, and placed in the perfect organic broth will not link together to form proteins. What we were taught was unscientific in every step.

A quiet revolution has taken place in the last few years. Another chemical has elbowed out proteins and taken over the popular fancy. Even Schoolbooks are admitting that proteins could not have formed in organic broth:

"Scientists have not been able to cause amino acids dissolved in water to join together to form proteins. The energy-requiring chemical reactions that join amino acids are reversible and do not occur spontaneously in water. However, most scientists no longer argue that the first proteins assembled spontaneously. Instead, they now propose that the initial macromolecules were composed of RNA, and that RNA later catalyzed the formation of proteins."1 

The evidence against the old amino acid to protein to life theory has always been overwhelming, but until recently it was seldom mentioned except by creationists. Most people who are alive today and believe that life started without a creator do so because they believed the amino to protein to life theory.

Even had proteins been able to form, they could not have gotten together with DNA to form a "first cell" because neither DNA nor RNA, will form outside of already living cells either!2

Let's take a more careful look at the proteins. You may not have realized the importance of these fascinating little molecules that do most of the work of cells. They offer powerful scientific evidence that living things were not made by chemicals coming together by themselves, but were created.

Proteins are folded to fit

Once a cell, RNA, or whatever, has made a protein, it must be folded correctly in its own complex three dimensional shape in order to perform its function in the cell. When a cell makes a new protein, while it is still moving toward its place in the cell, it folds into the exact shape which will allow it to connect with the proteins that will be next to it. Some use the illustration of a hand in a glove to describe how a protein must fit. Others liken it to the way a key fits in a lock. Here is how it works according to the IBM website:

"Comprising strings of amino acids that are joined like links of a chain, proteins fold into a highly complex, three-dimensional shape that determines their function. Any change in shape dramatically alters the function of a protein, and even the slightest change in the folding process can turn a desirable protein into a disease."3

On December 6, 1999, IBM announced that it was building the world's most powerful super computer to tackle the protein folding problem:

"The machine, dubbed Blue Gene, will be turned loose on a single problem. The computer will try to model the way a human protein folds into a particular shape that gives it its unique biological properties."4

Because of the tremendous amount of computing power being unleashed, it has been estimated that running day and night it may only take a year for Blue Gene to finish its calculations and model the folding of the first small protein. Cells, however, fold small proteins in seconds!

Specialized proteins called chaperones or chaperonins, have recently been discovered which move newly made proteins along to the places in the cell where they must fit perfectly if they are to function with the other proteins around them. On the way the chaperones help them fold correctly, and then help fit them into their place. How do the chaperones themselves fold correctly? They too have chaperones!

Scientists working in the best laboratories can assemble some of the more simple proteins, but unless they fold properly they will not work in living things. Unfolded proteins may be the same chemically, but they are no better than miniature spaghetti as far as biological activity is concerned, and a wrong fold may cause a serious disease.

Addressing proteins

Even though there may be billions of possible wrong places for proteins in some cells to go, there is only one place in which any newly made protein will fit and function. The problem is that proteins are not made where they will be used, and are worthless until each one has found its way to the one spot where it fits. How do they find it? "…newly minted proteins contain an amino acid string that determines their eventual home."5 This string of amino acids is usually added as a tail on the end of the longer string of amino acids which make up the protein. It has been compared to the address on an envelope. When you put a letter in the mail box without the address, what chance does it have of getting to the person to whom you are mailing it? Each properly folded protein will fit and connect correctly in only one spot, so it must be addressed correctly. "Misplacing a protein is more serious than losing a letter, however. There are diseases where proteins are mistargeted in cells."5

In 1999, "The Nobel Prize for Medicine went to Dr. Guenter Blobel of The Rockefeller University in New York" for discovering the amino acid address tags that direct each protein to its proper place in the cell.6 

For the first cell to function, it not only had to have a way to make proteins, it also had to have solved the complex problems of folding proteins correctly, and addressing them to the exact spots where they would fit and function. Near misses in any step can cause disease, but the diseases are relatively rare because folding and addressing are done carefully, under the directions of the cell's information.

Turning proteins on and off

It is not enough for a cell's proteins to be folded correctly and sent to the right places. The cell also needs the right amount of each protein. If it just kept making more and more copies of any given protein, it would completely use up many of its raw materials. It's like the difference between burning the right amount of wood in your fireplace, and burning down the whole house. Also, if there were even one protein that the cell could not stop making after it had made enough, that cell would soon be jammed so full of that protein that it would die. The production of every individual protein, therefore, must be turned on and off at just the right moment.7

Even if a first cell had just popped up with all the right amounts of the correct proteins, perfectly folded and in the right place to begin life, it would have had to replace each protein as soon as it wore out. If the cell knew when and how to make the first replacement protein, it would have drowned itself in copies of that protein unless a control system were already in place to turn the production off when it had made enough.

One of the most important methods of turning protein production on or off is by means of regulatory DNA sequences. They are stretches of DNA whose job is to tell the cell when to start and stop the production of each specific protein. The DNA, however, can not turn protein production on or off by itself. It works together with specialized proteins, each of which fits a particular stretch of regulatory DNA. The regulatory protein folds perfectly so it will fit the exact spot on the DNA with which it must work. Together they form a switch.8 Neither the regulatory DNA sequences nor the regulatory proteins will work without the other. Both must have come into being perfectly coordinated by the time production of the first protein needed to be turned on or off.

Proteins are so complex they will not form anywhere in nature except in cells where the directions for their construction are already contained in the DNA. Then, if a protein is to perform its task, its production must be carefully regulated, but even when regulated perfectly, it will not function unless it also has the correct address tag and is properly folded. All these systems would have to have been in place before the first cell could live and function. These systems, however are just the tip of the iceberg. I chose them to illustrate the many coordinated systems that would have to have been present before the first cell would work.

The teaching that the first cell was spontaneously generated without the involvement of the Creator has its basis in the pre-scientific myth that single celled creatures were simple. It obviously does not stand up under today's knowledge that a cell's DNA, RNA, membranes and proteins are extremely hard to make, and when made, they must be properly folded, addressed, and turned on and off at just the right times. None of these brilliant solutions could invent itself, yet no "first cell" could exist without all of them. They could not have happened without a very intelligent creator. The Lord's solutions to these complex problems were, in fact, incomparably better than those which are now hoped for from the world's most powerful super computer. They remind us of how powerful and intelligent God is. We can trust Him with our lives. Let's do that!
 

1 George B. Johnson, Peter H. Raven, Biology, Principles & Explorations, Holt, Rinhehart and Winston, 1996 p. 235.

2 Iris Fry, The Emergence of Life on Earth, 2000, p. 126, 176-177, 245. See also: Peter D. Ward, Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth, Why complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, 2000, p. 65, see also p. xix, 63-64, 60.

3 http://www.no.ibm.com/nyheter/des99/bluegene.html.

4 Justin Gillis, The Sunday Oregonian, June 4, 2000, A5.

5 Tom A. Rapoport of Harvard Medical School, Science News, 10/16/99, Vol. 156 Issue 16, p 246. See also Britannica Biography Collection, Guenter Blobel.

6 http://www4.cnn.com/HEALTH/9910/11/nobel.medicine.03/index.html.

7 Susan Aldridge, The Thread of Life, The story of genes and genetic engineering, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 47-53.

8 Bruce Alberts, Dennis Bray, Alexander Johnson, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, Peter Walter, Essential Cell Biology, An Introduction to the Molecular Biology of the Cell, 1998, p. 259-262.
 

Adapted from information in the book Answers to my Evolutionist Friends, How Life Began, by Thomas F. Heinze, published in 2002 by Chick Publications, 160 pages, $8.50. or read it free at:

http://www.chick.com/catalog/books/0123.asp


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