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Has Science Created Life?
In 1953, Francis Crick wandered into the Eagle pub in Cambridge, England, and announced: ‘We have found the secret of life!’ What he had actually found, or unravelled, was the spiral structure of the DNA molecule. For that amazing achievement he and his fellow worker, Watson, would later share a Nobel Prize.
The first pure sample of what is now called DNA had been extracted from salmon sperm by Friedrich Miescher back in the days of the American wild west. But it took another sixty years to figure out the molecular structure.
Crick’s claim was trumpeted to the world by a euphoric mass media, already under the spell of Darwinism and no longer able to see straight. I have little doubt, therefore, that most members of the general public have been conned into believing that yes, science does now understand all about DNA and is able to create new life forms. ‘I’s all abaat them jeans and chromophone fings, ain’t it? You know, dinosaurs and monkeys that turned into men. Sor it on the tele’.
The fact is that Crick had not discovered the secret of life and science simply does not know what ‘life’ is.
Equally deserving of a Nobel Prize, had one been available at the time, especially in light of the lack of technological support available, was Wohler’s synthesis of the compound Urea, formula: CO(NH2)2, in the year 1828, starting out with non-organic raw materials such as water and ammonia.
The crucial point was that Urea had previously been obtained only from organic sources, such as human urine, hence the name. Apparently, the yellow colour suggested the promise of extracting gold. A range of other substances were also obtained from organic sources, by boiling ants in water, for example – and were classified as being ‘organic’ because of their origins.
Although these mysterious new chemicals seemed very different to compounds such as water (H2O) and copper sulphate (H2SO4), and defied early attempts at analysis, it was slowly realized that main difference lay in the sheer size and complexity of their molecules, with many containing dozens or hundreds, or as we now know, even millions of atoms linked together in long chains, with other atoms or groups of atoms hooked on the sides.
The simplest organic substance is methane, once called marsh gas, its simple molecule consisting of one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogens, hence the formula CH4.
It was then discovered that a vast series of such ‘hydro-carbons’ existed in nature, a whole family of ‘chain’ molecules. The fuel butane, for example, is a bit more complicated, having a chain of four carbons, and pentane has five, hexane has six, and so on.
Each of the four carbon atoms in Butane, a fossil fuel, can make four bonds, a bit like having four hands. When its carbons link hands with those on either side, to form a chain, that leaves the first and last carbons in the chain with a free hand. The molecule is completed by a single hydrogen joining on each end. So that the formula works out as C4H10. In the same way, Pentane is C5H12, Octane is C8H18, and so on.
Crude oil, a fossilised organic substance, consists of a mixture of hundreds of kinds of hydro-carbon molecules. The shortest exist as gases, the medium length as liquids or oils and the longer chains as greases and waxes. The job of a refinery is to separate those molecules to make them available for various purposes such as petrol, heating oil, grease and waxes – and also as raw materials for the plastics industry, plastics being composed of long chain molecules with a variety of other elements taking the places of some of the hydrogens. In fact, chains can be induced to join sideways on with other chains to form solid networks of mechanically strong plastic called ‘polymers’.
The Carbon Miracle
Because it can make four bonds or links to other atoms,Carbon is an amazing element. Astonishing is the fact that it can exist as graphite, composed of flat sheets that can slide over one another, one of the softest substances – but also in a three dimensional crystal lattice as diamond, one of the hardest substances known.
And more recently, carbon has been obtained in single sheets, one atom thick, called graphene, a material which not only conducts electricity well, but is flexible and transparent and therefore useful in manufacturing computer screens.
How interesting that carbon is atomic number 6, the Biblical number of man – and that it forms the twin spines of the DNA molecule, an essential component of living things.
Incidentally, one of problems faced by early researchers was to work out the structure of the benzene molecule, which analysis showed to have the formula C6H6. But how could such a molecule exist? It seemed to be a hexane molecule, but with eight hydrogens missing.How could that be possible? The puzzle was solved by the chemist Kekule in a dream one night wherein six snakes writhed about – then all of a sudden joined head to tail! Eureka! The Benzene ‘ring’ was discovered. And this time some of the carbons had double bonds with their neighbours. Similar and more complex ring structures are found in DNA ‘bases’, such as Adenine – A. See Google images.
I mention Kekule’s dream, because Francis Crick also had a dream, one in which he saw a spiral staircase – the missing key to the structure of the DNA molecule. One of the keys to creativity is to relax and let the creative mind play.
The Death of Vitalism
Prior to Wohler’s synthesis of urea, it was believed that one reason organic substances were so different was because they had previously been obtained from living things, and must contain an special ingredient, a ‘vital’ spark of life. Hence the ‘vitalist’ theory. Wohler’s work was regarded as a death blow for vitalism because he had started out with non-organic materials.
The point is that the atoms that constitute urea are simply atoms, pieces of inanimate matter – combinations of neutrons, protons and electrons. There is no ‘vital’ spark of ‘life’ in them. Likewise, the urea molecules in a living organism are also simply composed of inanimate matter. The urea is not ‘alive’. Furthermore, the Human Genome Project has shown that all the genes and DNA in the human body are also not ‘alive’.
One consequence of this work has been the realization that it is ‘not all in the genes’. The genes simply do not contain the magic ‘blueprints’ required to construct a living organism or direct the development of any part of it in the womb, from egg to embryo to birth. There is a ‘vital’ part missing that science cannot find.
As maverick evolutionist Rupert Sheldrake stresses, to explain these miracles of life, we need to revive the old vitalism theory. As an updated version he proposes that the design and growth of every organism is controlled by an invisible, non-physical ‘morphic field’ which he compares to a magnetic field and the way it draws iron filings into various patterns.
The actions of flocks of birds, bees in a hive and ants in a colony are also thought to be under the direction of morphic fields. No doubt the fields also impart instinct, which is why the young of migratory birds are born knowing how to navigate by the sun. The Bible term for a morphic field would seem to be ‘spirit’, a non-physical component about which science knows nothing (Job 32:8, Ecclesiastes 3:21).
Armed with this information, let us now take a closer look at the BBC’s claim that Dr Craig Venter has ‘created artificial life’.
What Is Life?
In the 1890’s, some time afterdiscovery of cells and singe-celled organisms such as bacteria, a strange new pathogen was found infecting tobacco plants and was named the ‘tobacco mosaic virus’, the word virus simply meaning ‘poison’.
Viruses are too small to be seen with an ordinary microscope because most are smaller than the wavelength of light. However, with the aid of an electron microscope, some 5,000 viruses have been studied in detail, and some very interesting pictures are available on Google images using the search term ‘virus’.
Viruses are considered by some to be a life form, because they carry genetic material, sometimes just a singe circular chromosome. However, they can only replicates inside living cells of other organisms, and lack other key characteristics, such as cell structure. They are therefore described as ‘organisms at the edge of life’.
Not surprisingly, since science has no idea of what life is, we are informed that ‘The origins of viruses in the evolutionary history of life are unclear’. Oh dear.
I suspect that the interest of Craig Venter and others in ‘synthetic life’ must have been triggered by the following basic facts – one, that viruses possess DNA despite not being ‘alive’; two, that they can only reproduce inside cells of living organisms; and three that their DNA is contained in a relatively ‘simple’ single circular chromosome.
Venter’s ambitious plan, therefore, was to read the sequence of the C, A, T and G bases in a virus, then use a computer to somehow assemble an identical genome from scratch. Apparently they actually had four bottles, labelled C, A, T and G which contained zillions of bases, made from non-organic materials, that the machine could call on as and when required. This was a monumental task, which took some years to carry out. Nevertheless, it succeeded. A synthetic chemical genome was assembled.
The second step was to find the simplest possible bacterium, and then ‘infect’ it with the synthetic viral DNA, the man-made genome, and see what happened. Although 99% of their experiments failed, and the wait was sometimes frustratingly long, prompting them to try several other bacteria, persistence paid off, as it had for Thomas Edison a century earlier who created some 8,000 electric light bulbs before he succeeded. The viral DNA replicated and multiplied. A true Eureka moment.
Synthia – a Tailor-made Bacterium
A BBC headline later informed the world that Dr Craig Venter, whose team had catalogued the Human Genome, had now created ‘tailor-made bacteria’ that will ‘create a new industrial revolution’ by making possible the mass-production of a variety of chemicals including drugs and fuels.
The project this time was to strip out the natural chromosome of a bacterium, then replace it, not with viral DNA, but with a modified copy of its own DNA, again synthesised using inorganic materials. Again, it worked. But there was one little problem I.e. how to prove that they really had done what they claimed? The answer was to add a ‘signature’ to the new DNA.
In computers, letters are represented, using ASCII code, by series of 0’s and 1’s, the so called binary notation system. Using the same basic principle Venter et al devised a code whereby sequences of C, A, G and T bases in a strip of DNA could be used to represent the letters of the alphabet and hence words. With the insertion of appropriate ‘stop’ codes, the quotations would be ignored by the host cell and simply replicated along with the rest of the DNA.
Thus, as a demonstration of their expertise, the names of forty project members plus three famous quotations were coded into the DNA sequences of their artificial genome. One quotation read: ‘To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life’ – a quotation from the late James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And so Synthia was born and authenticated.
Ironically, they had not obtained permission to use Joyce’s quote, which caused a legal fuss. And neither had they created ‘life’. Not to detract from the amazing work involved, what Venter had actually done was to develop the first living cell to be controlled entirely by synthetic DNA – a chemically synthesized genome. He had not created a cell.
As Venter explained it: Quote: “We’ve now been able to take our synthetic chromosome and transplant it into a recipient cell – a different organism.
‘As soon as this new software goes into the cell, the cell reads [it] and converts into the species specified in that genetic code.’
The new bacteria replicated over a billion times, producing copies that contained and were controlled by the constructed, synthetic DNA.
‘This is the first time any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell,’
The work was described in a paper entitled Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome,published in 2010 in the Science journal. I leave the reader to critique the title.
The technology has now moved on rapidly, and the proverbial floodgates have been opened, so that anybody wishing to dabble in ‘synthetic biology’ can now purchase a wide range of so-called ‘BioBricks’, ready-made chunks of DNA to experiment with. Universities are even encouraging students to help do the donkey work by synthesising small chunks of DNA at home that can then be sewn together as part of master projects. Although good may come, the immediate prospect is somewhat sobering. Is another Pandora’s box being prised open?
A New industrial revolution?
Dr Venter and his colleagues hope eventually to design and build new bacteria that will perform useful functions. ‘I think they’re going to potentially create a new industrial revolution,’ he said. ‘If we can really get cells to do the production that we want, they could help wean us off oil and reverse some of the damage to the environment by capturing carbon dioxide.’
In light of what was said earlier, what Venter has achieved might be compared to a man changing the CD in a car then having the media claim that he had created a new car. Of course, if the man can make a CD, then given enough time he might be able to build a whole car as well. So we might suppose that, given time, Venter could also build a whole artificial cell as well.
By implication, however, we might compare to Sheldrake’ morphic field to the human driver of a car. Should Venter ever be able to manufacture a ‘car’, it would still just be just a complex assembly of inanimate bits and pieces – and lacking a ‘driver’, to switch it on and operate it.
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