Folding Molecules Give Insight to Origin of Life

Folding molecules

A non-observable, non-repeatable, non-testable past

by Dr. Carrie John

Recently published research discusses the synthesis and characterization of a large molecule which folds into a ring pattern with five-fold symmetry. The size and shape of any given molecule have many implications in its usefulness as a catalyst, a chemical sensor, a scaffold for further reactions, or in its medicinal applications. However, the use of terminology including spontaneous, chemical evolution and even a subheading “Origin of Life” through the article displays the mindset of the authors. Our responsibility as Christians is to discern the difference between the discussion of results and the statements made which are interpreted through an anti-biblical worldview.

Introduction

A recent article states that work published by a chemistry group in The Netherlands “is interesting for origin-of-life research: apparently, you can get these complex molecules before biological evolution has started.”1 They discuss the synthesis of a large molecule which folded into a ring pattern with a five-fold symmetry (pentagon shape) and compared it to the folding of proteins. In the full technical paper,2 most of the discussion and results focus on what was done in the lab and how the resulting products were tested and characterized.

The bulk of the paper and the 54 pages of supporting information demonstrate that the structure formed has been well studied by this group. The narrative in the news review article, as well as the original paper’s abstract, introduction, and conclusion makes it evident that they would like to tie this work to evolution and origin of life. Those keywords are used seven times in the brief review, but only a total of six times in the full technical paper, so it is easy to see what part of the paper is being made prominent in the news. Their tie-in is that this large molecule spontaneously formed and folded (in the reaction conditions determined in the lab), which they state, “implies that they [the complex, folded molecules] may have played a role in the origin of life at earlier stages than previously thought possible.” One of the first claims made in the publication is that “complex folded molecules are the product either of evolution or of an elaborate process of design and synthesis.” This is their way of saying that this type of molecule occurs in nature or in the lab, through a series of complex reactions. We can see that their worldview has a role in their assumptions of where complex molecules and proteins came from in nature.

The work done in this article is not with proteins, but large molecules that fold like proteins. The folding of proteins is essential to their function.3 It is a complex process to synthesize even relatively short pieces of proteins, called peptides, in a lab setting.4 The arrangement of the amino acids (building blocks of proteins) must be precise. The process of solid-phase peptide synthesis is time-consuming because, in a lab setting, as each amino acid is added it is “protected,” so that the new amino acid will only bind to the previous member of the desired chain rather than making a new chain of its own. The excess is washed away, then a chemical reaction step takes place that cuts off the end portion that was protecting it from uncontrolled chain growth. Now that new amino acid has the protected end cut off, the next one can be added. This process is repeated for every addition. In the end, the whole peptide is released from the “anchor” that it was attached to. The conditions for the overall process often involve harsh solvents for multiple steps, as opposed to the conditions within our cells. The cellular machinery and information in our DNA accomplish what is necessary for our protein synthesis.5 What we, as humans, can synthesize in the lab is impressive, but ultimately is exceedingly limited when compared to what we observe in creation. Proteins and their production, like so many examples in nature, should be a witness to the incredible Designer and Creator of all life. Unfortunately, most of our culture has been taught to view these marvels simply as random chance evolution and that everything has a naturalistic explanation…

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image credit: Original artwork based on getty image