Nearly every day the newspaper has an article that announces some new research on DNA. One of the recent applications of DNA research is to classify living things. Classification is an old issue, going back to Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2:19-20 God brought all kinds of living organisms before Adam so that he could name them. In 1 Kings 4:33 Solomon wrestled with the issue as well. Our current system of naming living things was brought into existence by Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s, but it is gradually being replaced by what is called DNA barcodes.
You can compare DNA barcodes to the barcodes we see when we shop for merchandise. Instead of bars, DNA barcodes are a string of DNA nucleotides. In 2003 scientists began to identify species by these nucleotides. Mitochondria are rod-shaped organelles that can be considered the power generators of the cell. They convert oxygen and nutrients into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the chemical energy that powers the cell’s metabolic activities. There is one gene named cytochrome c oxidase subunit 1 (COX1) which is found in mitochondria. It is passed only from mother to offspring. The mixing of traits from the father and mother does not happen in this mitochondria, so the DNA nucleotides in mitochondria make it ideal to use in identifying species.
Studies by M.Y. Stoeckle and D.S. Thaler have involved analyzing the DNA barcodes from five million individual organisms which represent 100,000 different species. What they found was that barcode variations within a species vary by small amounts, and there are huge gaps between the species. What that means historically is that each species is essentially an island not connected to other species. If all species came from a common ancestor, you would not see this, but you would see a river from island to island.
The biblical record is very consistent in identifying the groupings of living things. In our materials, we have referred to these “islands” as being “trees in the forest of life.” First Corinthians 15:39 identifies these “islands” or “trees” in this way: “There is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts (mammals), another flesh of birds and another flesh of fish.” This same grouping is used consistently in the Bible with Genesis 1 & 2 in describing the creation of life, Genesis 7:14 describing what Noah took on the Ark, and 1 Kings 4:33.
There are many more trees or islands than the Bible describes, and they contain living things that may vary enormously. A major debate in science is whether the dinosaurs were birds or reptiles. DNA barcodes may answer that question, but the implications for the biblical record are not significant. The single “tree of evolution” which has been popular for a very long time does not fit the DNA bar code evidence, but the biblical system does. New research is leading to new understandings both scientifically and biblically. It is an exciting time to be alive and to learn from new scientific tools how accurate the biblical record is and how wise God has been in His creation techniques.
–John N. Clayton © 2019
For further information, go to this website: https://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/cells/mitochondria/mitochondria.html
Environmentalists claim that animal species are becoming extinct and that we must preserve their DNA. The problem with this claim is that as the environment changes, animals may not be able to survive. An example is animals that have a very specialized diet, such as eating mostly on bamboo. If something wipes out the bamboo, what are these animals to do? We can save samples of their DNA, but moving them away from their natural habitat to a different place where bamboo is growing may not be the answer. It can expose them to predators and diseases that were not present in their original environment. We call this human wildlife management. While in some cases it can correct what humans have done, there are many cases where humans are not the cause. Massive investments may only delay the inevitable extinction of an animal.
The red wolf is a current example of human wildlife management. Red wolves were once common across a large region of Texas and Louisiana. The red wolf was classified as endangered in 1967 and extinct in 1980, although some were living in zoos and wildlife facilities. In the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bred red wolves and in 1986 introduced them to the wild in North Carolina. By 2006 there were over 100 wolves in North Carolina, but the population was not healthy. Many were killed by farmers and ranchers so that by April of 2018, fewer than 50 remained.
Recently a pack of red wolves was found on Galveston Island in Texas. At first, red wolf advocates were delighted. Then they became dismayed when scientists found that the Galveston wolves had DNA that was different from the original red wolves. The change in the DNA may be in part from coyotes in the area. We would suggest that God created red wolves to occupy a particular environmental niche. When that niche was changed, no matter what changed it, another design feature kicked in. That design feature which God has placed in living things is hybridization.
Hybridization is the interbreeding of two animals who are genetically close but not identical. The offspring produced by this mix of genes is often stronger and more resilient than either of the parents. When the Endangered Species Act was implemented in the 1970s hybridization was considered to be something to avoid. The reality is that God’s design allows animals to continue to prosper through hybridization.
Elizabeth Heppenheimer is a biologist from Princeton who has been studying the wolves on Galveston Island. She says, “Now we know hybridization is relatively common in natural systems and does not always have negative consequences, but the policy (of human wildlife management) hasn’t quite caught up with this notion.”
God’s methods work, and when humans try to replace God’s design with human judgments and controls, the results are frequently not what is best.
–John N. Clayton © 2019
Data from “DNA Discovery” by David Warren, Associated Press January 15, 2019.
Many years ago there was a well-known radio news personality named Paul Harvey. He made a career out of digging into details on stories that were not publicized by the media. He called the reporting “The Rest of the Story.” People close to Harvey said that he got some heat from media people who felt he had made them look bad by revealing details they missed. With the general public, however, he was very popular. We want to examine the rest of the story on gene editing.
There has been a great deal of media reporting about CRISPR-Cas9 which is a tool for editing DNA introduced in 2012. Researchers hope that science can treat a wide range of genetic diseases by altering human DNA. The problem is that our understanding in this area is very primitive. Bioethicists writing in the Wall Street Journal (December 15, 2018, page C3) report, “scientists have only begun to understand what the tens of thousands of individual genes do. Moreover, they are far from unraveling how those genes interact with each other.”
When researchers deleted a gene that limits muscle growth in rabbits, the rabbits had enlarged tongues. Doing the same thing with pigs produced additional vertebrae. In calves the change caused the calves to die prematurely. Lambs grew too large in the womb to be born naturally. Lisa Moses who is a bioethicist at Harvard says, “Humans have a long history of messing around in nature with all kinds of unintended consequences. It’s really hubris of us to assume that we know what we are doing and that we can predict what kinds of bad things can happen.”
There are lessons to learn here. CRISPR has the potential to correct damage to DNA caused by human carelessness, pollution, and mismanagement. The rest of the story on gene editing is still to be written. When a Chinese scientist claims to have produced the first gene-edited human babies, there has to be immediate condemnation by the scientific community. Over the years, outstanding scientists have pointed out that science lacks the capacity to determine the use of its discoveries.
We desperately need Christians who are capable scientists using their faith in God to determine those uses. Will CRISPR be used to eliminate genetic diseases, or will it be used by political demagogues to produce pathogens that kill millions of innocent people? The Nobel Peace Prize was started by a man who discovered dynamite and was appalled at the way it was being used to fight wars. That kind of sensitivity is needed in today’s genetic research to write the rest of the story on gene editing.
Another lesson in all of this is that the complexity of the genetic code of life cannot be the result of chance – a blind watchmaker as some have suggested. Wisdom calls out in Proverbs 8, “O you simple ones, understand wisdom … for wisdom is better than rubies; and all things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. I wisdom dwell with prudence and find out knowledge of witty inventions … The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His way, before His works of old … Hear instruction and be wise and refuse it not.”
–John N. Clayton © 2019
Have you ever had a song stuck in your head? Sometimes we hear a song, and it seems to keep ringing in our brains for days. It may be a song we love. Sometimes it’s an annoying song that we can’t stand but can’t forget. Advertisers often use jingles in their commercials hoping that their little songs will keep haunting us until we buy their products. Whether good or bad, I can’t get that song out of my head.
I can be thankful that whatever the song is, it will eventually go away–and be replaced by another one. Imagine what it would be like if you had only one song for your whole life. More than that, imagine that your children and future descendants still had that same song. That could be the description of the life of a songbird.
We love to hear songbirds, and with a little effort, we can learn to identify different species of birds by their songs. That’s because, for the most part, each species has its unique song that it passes on from generation to generation.
Songbirds are born with a song stored in their brains. As the birds grow, they learn to match their vocal patterns to the song in their heads. Even if a baby bird never hears its parents sing, and although surrounded by the songs of other species, it will still learn to sing the song that its parents sang. There are a few species of birds that can imitate the songs of other birds, or even human voices and other sounds. Those birds are born with a different program built into their brains that gives evidence of a creative Designer of life.
When I can’t get that song out of my head, I can start singing or listening to a different song. Humans have that ability because the Designer has given us a creative capacity. That’s part of being created in the image of a creative God. But what if all people made their houses precisely the same way? Besides singing the songs of its parents, a bird will build only the same kind of nest its parents made. You would have to say that Someone also stored the nest-building instruction book in the bird’s brain.
Is it possible that an intelligent Designer drew up the nest plans and created the songs and placed them in the bird’s DNA? Generation after generation, the song and nest data are pre-programmed for the birds to follow. Remember that the One who drew the nest blueprints and wrote the songs and programmed them into the tiny brains of those birds is the One whose, “eye is on the sparrow” and furthermore, “I know He watches me.” (Matthew 10:29-31)
–Roland Earnst © 2018
The speed of scientific advancement in genetics and the use of computers in biochemistry is astounding. Scientists mapped the human genome in 2001. In May of 2018, Synthetic Genomics announced that they had created a working Digital to Biological Converter (DBC). The DBC turns digitized DNA code into synthetic biological material such as proteins. The process is called “Gibson Assembly” and can produce small pieces of DNA code called oligonucleotides and stitch the pieces together into DNA strands.
The exciting part of this new technology is that it could allow doctors to personalize medications to the individual needs of patients. Oncologists could create a medicine specifically targeted to the patient’s tumor. It has the potential to create vaccines to fight an epidemic quickly. The prototype machine is too large and too inefficient to be practical, but Synthetic Genomics hopes to have it available to medical researchers in three to five years.
Many of the health problems we have today whether genetic or otherwise have been caused by what we have done to ourselves and our environment with various chemicals and carcinogens. Some might say that we are “playing God” by creating synthetic genetic material. But if we have a way to correct the damage that our ancestors and we have done and relieve pain and suffering, we should certainly do it. The complexity of the Digital to Biological Converter and the material that it produces tells us more of God’s wisdom in the original construction of life.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Reference: Wall Street Journal. July 14-15, 2018, page B4
One of the most amazing things we see in the natural world is the ability of some living things to make incredible migrations. In the past, we have described the monarch butterfly’s migrations from wintering areas in Mexico to northern parts of the United States covering a round trip of about 10,000 kilometers. However, we see that painted lady butterflies out-migrate monarchs.
Scientists have studied how the monarchs navigate such incredible distances with formidable obstacles in their way. Biologists have proposed a variety of models as to how these fragile butterflies could acquire such an ability. However, in the case of the monarchs, the journey is not made by a single butterfly but by a succession of generations.
Science News for July 21, 2018 (page 4) told about a study of another butterfly with an amazing migration. It has the scientific name Vanessa cardui and is commonly known as the painted lady butterfly. These butterflies live in Southern Europe and migrate to Africa in the fall–a distance of 12,000 km. That’s 2000 kilometers farther than the monarchs, and the journey involves crossing the Sahara Desert. As with the monarchs, scientists had believed that the migration involved several generations. New techniques allowed researchers to put markers on the painted ladies when they were caterpillars. We now know that at least some of the butterflies make this incredible journey in one lifetime.
When you look at the barriers to this migration including changes in wind direction, mountains, desert, and storms it is difficult not to be impressed with how the painted lady butterflies out-migrate monarchs. Trying to construct a possible model based on chance processes involves so many assumptions that it is hard to accept that this ability can have an evolutionary explanation. Believing that God’s creation included building a DNA set of instructions that allows the painted ladies and monarchs to migrate is not just an assumption, but the weight of the evidence supports it.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
The journal Human Evolution published an article about new research on DNA barcoding. There are two different types of DNA. Most of us know something about nuclear DNA which is the genetic blueprint for every single individual passed down from parent to offspring. The complete DNA blueprint contains more than three-billion letters and is packed into the tiny nucleus of every cell in our bodies.
The second type of DNA is found in the mitochondria of cells. The mitochondria generate energy for the cell, and mitochondrial DNA contains 37 kinds of genes. One of those is the COI gene which is used to create DNA barcoding. You could compare these DNA barcodes with the barcodes on products which we purchase from a store.
Researchers at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario have analyzed the COI of 100,000 species by examining millions of DNA barcodes. They conclude that most animals appeared simultaneously. Researchers credited that to a sudden event that caused large-scale environmental trauma and wiped out a majority of the Earth’s species.
This is another blow to the belief of those who say gradualism is how the diversity of life-forms came into existence on the Earth. The DNA barcoding research supports the view that catastrophic events gave rise to sweeping changes on Earth which led to the emergence of new species including humans.
As more and more evidence becomes available, the credibility of the biblical account grows. Future data will help us understand more about what has happened in the past to give us the planet we call home.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
In the last decade, geneticists have learned how to decode DNA in ancient human remains. We can now begin to see human history in DNA. The media has saturated us with the theory that humans originated in Africa and migrated from there to the rest of the world. National Geographic was a major promoter of that theory, and it was based on the field work of a group of anthropologists like Louis Leakey who actively defended that view. Discussions about race have also been a part of this debate among scientists, and sometimes the exchanges have been less than cordial.
The most recent debate along these lines has come with the release of a book titled Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich. Reich runs a lab at Harvard Medical School which has released a great deal of data in the past decade. In 2010 Reich’s lab informed us that all non-Africans have Neanderthal DNA in their genome. Reich maintains that race is a social construct and that differences in genetic makeup are geographically related.
A group of 67 scholars released an open letter on BuzzFeed.com objecting to Reich’s racial concepts. Other anthropologists have contended that the reality of our origins “is more complex and interesting than scientists ever imagined.”
The biblical description of human history is so brief that one should not look for conflicts with the biblical account. The Bible tells us that we are all related, and the fact that all races are fertile with one another supports that. The Bible does not tell us when Adam and Eve lived or how much time elapsed as humans migrated throughout the world.
A careful study of the Bible indicates that we are all equal and have a common ancestry. God’s design of our genome has allowed us to survive as a species for a very long time in spite of disease. Reich’s book supports that notion but gives us some idea of how the design has worked by examining human history in DNA.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
The general media and scientific journals have given great attention to something called CRISPR (pronounced like the name of the refrigerator drawer where you stash fresh veggies). CRISPR was first reported in scientific journals and papers in 2012. Now it is being used by scientists all over the world as a method to modify human embryonic stem cells and answer questions about basic biology and development. Here is a sample of what Wikipedia says about it:
“CRISPR is an abbreviation of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats… A simple version of the CRISPR/Cas system, CRISPR/Cas9, has been modified to edit genomes… CRISPR/Cas genome-editing techniques have many potential applications, including medicine and crop seed enhancement. The use of CRISPR/Cas9-gRNA complex for genome editing was the AAAS’s choice for the breakthrough of the year in 2015. Bioethical concerns have been raised about the prospect of using CRISPR for germline editing.”
That last statement about this technique concerns many people. Are we “playing God” feeling that we can improve on what God has created? Is human genetic engineering going to threaten a catastrophic mistake in the future? Hollywood is already on this with dramas like Netflix’s Luke Cage.
CRISPR exploits something that microbes commonly do in the natural world. Bacteria defend themselves against viruses and other DNA in the environment by having snippets of foreign genetic material as molecular spacers which serve as borders. What scientists are doing is to pick those characteristics that CRISPR can use to eliminate a bad gene and insert a good one in place of it. We are taking something that God has designed into nature and using it to eliminate genetic disorders that may have been caused by human abuse of the environment.
This could be the tool to eliminate nerve damage and give quadriplegics and paraplegics full use of their arms and legs. Trials are already going on to eliminate cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, many forms of cancer, sickle cell anemia, beta thalassemia, and leukemia. This is not replacing God’s original design but rather using some of the tools God created to repair things damaged by time and human abuse. Scientists are harnessing an ancient biological process to edit the code of life. God’s design is what makes this possible and offers great hope for the future of people afflicted with disorders which have not been within our medical reach in the past.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Reference: Notre Dame Magazine, Spring 2018, pages 22-27.
There has been a lot of confusion about the Neanderthals in both religious publications and scientific writings. Scientists have reported that there are Neanderthal genes in modern humans.
Many have treated the Neanderthals as ape-men, and there have been multiple theories about how they originated.
Religious publications have speculated about Neanderthal influence on biblical characters. Those who wish to find “giants” in biblical accounts have claimed that the Neanderthals were giants, and at least one set of fake pictures of huge skulls has circulated on the internet attempting to back that up.
Researchers in Germany have just reported on DNA studies of the Neanderthal genes in modern humans. They found 15 Neanderthal DNA traits in modern humans. What is interesting is that these 15 traits show up in people of British ancestry, but people of pure African descent have no Neanderthal DNA. This will certainly complicate some of the “out of Africa” theories about the origin of humans.
We suggest that most of the claims of prehistoric humans involve racial variations. No claim of different species of humans is supported by the evidence. The biblical claim that Eve is the mother of all humans (Genesis 3:20) continues to be strongly supported as we study our past.
–John N. Clayton © 2017