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Miraculous Motors

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

Each year, automobile manufacturers from Detroit to Japan unveil their latest designs, in hopes of attracting new buyers to their market. The cars in these shows have the most complex, technologically advanced motors to date. Yet, even the newest “bells and whistles” cannot compare to the marvelous motors that are making the headlines today—molecular motors inside the cell. In fact, the discovery of the mechanics behind these miniature motors resulted in three individuals winning the 1997 Nobel Prize. Science’s highest and most coveted prize was awarded to Paul Boyer and John Walker, for their elucidation of the enzymatic mechanism underlying the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and to Jens Skou, for the first discovery of an ion-transporting enzyme, Na+, K+-ATPase.

In his book, Darwin’s Black Box, which rocked the evolutionary camp, Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe pointed out the intricate complexity of the cell’s cilium, and of the bacterial flagellum. In detailing the sophistication of these motors, he noted:

The rotary nature of the bacterial flagellar motor was a startling, unexpected discovery. Unlike other systems that generate mechanical motion (muscles, for example) the bacterial motor does not directly use energy that is stored in a “carrier” molecule such as ATP. Rather, to move the flagellum it uses the energy generated by a flow of acid through the bacterial membrane…. The bacterial flagellum, in addition to proteins already discussed, requires about forty other proteins for function (1996, pp. 70,71, parenthetical item in orig.).

He then went on to observe:

In summary, as biochemists have begun to examine apparently simple structures like cilia and flagella, they have discovered staggering complexity, with dozens or even hundreds of precisely tailored parts…. As the number of required parts increases, the difficulty of gradually putting the system together skyrockets, and the likelihood of indirect scenarios plummets. Darwin looks more and more forlorn (p. 73).

Flagellum motor
Top: Bacterial flagellum with rotary motor, courtesy of Access Research Network (Art Battson)
Bottom: ATP synthase motor; image by Charles McCown
ATP synthase motor

If Behe considered the Darwinian theory to be in bad shape then, consider the validity of the evolutionary theory now, since five families of these structurally complex motors have been identified! The February 21, 2003 issue of Cell included a review by Ronald Vale titled “The Molecular Motor Toolbox” (112:467). In the abstract of that article, Vale noted: “Recent genomic and functional studies suggest that five cargo-carrying motors emerged in primitive eukaryotes and have been widely used throughout evolution” (112:467). He then described these “evolved” motors in the following manner:

A cell, like a metropolitan city, must organize its bustling community of macromolecules. Setting meeting points and establishing the timing of transactions are of fundamental importance for cell behavior. The high degree of spatial/temporal organization of molecules and organelles within cells is made possible by protein machines that transport components to various destinations within the cytoplasm (112:467).

Vale then went into extreme detail, reviewing everything we know about these five major motor-engine families that ferry cargo around the cell: actin, dynein, conventional homodimeric kinesin, heterotrimeric kinesin II, and Unc 104/KIF1. But throughout his review, one point became painfully clear: there still is a great deal of information that we do not understand about these amazingly complex motors. Vale even admitted: “Fifteen years ago, only a few molecular motors were known. In contrast, complete inventories of molecular motors are now available in a number of diverse organisms. While these remarkable accomplishments have answered many questions, the genomic inventories also have exposed many areas of ignorance” (112:477).

Behe’s book brilliantly exposed the complexity of these structures, and as a result, many scientists are now echoing his initial observations. A United Kingdom research team headed by Stan Burgess imaged thousands of the little molecules that work something like railroad handcars (Burgess, et al., 2003, 421:715). These dynein motors have a ring-shaped, hexagonal head of six AAA proteins, to which is added a C-terminal domain of the protein. Emerging out of one side, and in the same plane as, the ring, is what the researchers refer to as a “stalk,” which has a structure on the end that attaches to the microtubules in the cell. These microtubules are like train tracks running throughout the cell. Emerging out of the other end is a stem that attaches to whatever cargo needs to be transported. The stem is fastened to the ring by a linker, which seems to act like a ratchet on a gear during the cycle. In this same issue, Richard Vallee and Peter Hook titled their review of this study, “A Magnificent Machine.” They noted: “The protein displays a degree of gymnastic ability that is rarely seen” (2003, 421:701).

Words like “remarkable,” “magnificent,” and “intricately complex” fill the literature as scientists rush to figure out exactly how these miniature motors can run so efficiently and effectively. In an interview, Joshua Shaevitz, coauthor of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, commented: “This is one of the most efficient engines anyone has ever seen…. Some estimates put it at near 100 percent efficiency. It’s an amazing little thing” (as quoted in Shwartz, 2003).

In an article titled “Acid Stops Bacteria Swimming,” Kendall Powell noted:

“This is a motor with quite remarkable properties,” says Robert Macnab of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who studies the assembly of bacterial motors. “It runs like a battery, moves like a ship’s propeller, has a gear switch so it can rotate in either direction, and it’s under the control of information from environment. These are biological functions at their most simplified form, and yet there are 60 different types of components in this little engine” (2003)

This is hardly the description of a “simple biological function”! In fact, the University of California in Los Angeles received a $30 million NASA grant to fund the Institute for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration. The main mission of this project is to “come up with biology-inspired devices that could facilitate space travel 30 years from now” (Knight, 2003). So now we have NASA paying millions of dollars to try and replicate the mechanics of these amazing motors. And yet, evolutionists still contend that these motors are not “intelligently designed,” and were not “created.” According to their beloved theory, these machines “just happened by chance.”

While evolutionists may embrace blind chance, questions still remain. What keeps these engines from colliding on the tracks? What (or Who?) is responsible for the switching of the tracks? How do these motors know exactly what cargo to carry? And most important, how did they get here in the first place? Add to this the fact that most “primitive” life forms such as Archaea and eubacteria possess these same molecular machines, and the pressure really begins to mount for evolutionists. Famous British evolutionist J.B.S. Haldane claimed in 1949 that logic prevented evolution from producing “various mechanisms, such as the wheel and magnet, which would be useless till fairly perfect” (see Is Evolution a Myth, p. 90). Therefore, such machines in organisms would be, in his opinion, “illogical” at best, and, at worst, impossible. These tiny molecular motors certainly fall quite nicely into Haldane’s category of alleged evolutionary products that would be “useless till fairly perfect.”

British evolutionist Richard Dawkins noted in the preface to his immensely popular book, The Blind Watchmaker: “The complexity of living organisms is matched by the elegant efficiency of their apparent design. If anyone doesn’t agree that this amount of complex design cries out for an explanation, I give up!” (1986, p. ix). We agree. And this is the same Richard Dawkins who similarly admitted: “The more statistically improbable a thing is, the less we can believe that it just happened by blind chance. Superficially the obvious alternative to chance is an intelligent Designer” (1982, 94:130, emp. added).

We, on the other hand, suggest that it is not “superficial” to acknowledge that where there is obvious design, there is, just as obviously, a designer. In fact, for once, we actually find ourselves in agreement with our unbelieving colleagues in science. As atheistic physicist Paul Ricci wrote in his book, Fundamentals of Critical Thinking: “ ‘Everything designed has a designer’ is an analytically true statement” (1986, p. 190). Indeed it is. Where there is design, there must be, by definition, a designer. The time has come for evolutionists to stop “marveling” at these “remarkable,” “magnificent,” and “intricately complex” finely tuned motors, and, instead, acknowledge the “remarkable,” “magnificent,” and “intricately complex” design behind them. It also is time—in fact, it is past time—for those same evolutionists to begin paying homage to their Creator (with the word “their” referring to both the motors and the evolutionists!).

REFERENCES

Behe, Michael J. (1996), Darwin’s Black Box (New York: Free Press).

Burgess, Stan A. Matt L. Walker, Hitoshi Sakakibara, Peter J. Knight, and Kazuhiro Oiwa (2003), “Dynein Structure and Power Stroke,” Nature, 421:715-718, February 13.

Dawkins, Richard (1982), “The Necessity of Darwinism,” New Scientist, 94:130-132, April 15.

Dawkins, Richard (1986) The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton).

Is Evolution a Myth? A Debate between D. Dewar and L.M. Davies vs. J.B.S. Haldane (1949), (London: Paternoster Press).

Knight, Jonathan (2003), “Cells Inspire Spacecraft,” Nature Science Update, [On-line] URL: http://www.nature.com/nsu/030224/030224-7.html.

Powell, Kendall (2003), “Acid Stops Bacteria Swimming,” Nature Science Update, [On-line] URL: http://www.nature.com/nsu/030203/030203-13.html.

Ricci, Paul (1986), Fundamentals of Critical Thinking (Lexington, MA: Ginn Press).

Swartz, Mark (2003), “Optical Trap Provides New Insights into Motor Molecules—Nature’s Ultimate Nanomachines,” EurekAlert, [On-line] URL: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-02/su-otp022503.php.

Vale, Ronald D. (2003), “The Molecular Motor Toolbox for Intracellular Transport,” Cell, 112:467-480, February 21.

Vallee, Richard B. and Peter Hook (2003), “A Magnificent Machine,” Nature, 421:701-702, February 13.




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