The caps on chromosomes

It’s Nobel Prize season, a time to salute good scholarship and, even more, to marvel at the structures built into nature that the winners have discovered. This year’s Nobel prize for medicine goes to three scientists who discovered how chromosomes stay together and keep their integrity even after the cells split. It seems the strands of genetic material have little caps on their ends:

Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California at San Francisco, Carol W. Greider of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Jack W. Szostak of Harvard Medical School in Boston were awarded the $1.4 million 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It was the first time two women shared the prize. . . .

The scientists won for a series of experiments they conducted in the 1970s and 1980s that showed that the long, intricate molecules known as chromosomes, which carry genes inside every cell, have protective structures on their ends — often likened to the plastic tips on shoelaces — called telomeres, which are replenished with an enzyme dubbed telomerase.

The work “solved a major problem in biology” and has led to groundbreaking insights into the aging process and potentially to new treatments for cancer and many other health problems, the Nobel Assembly said.

“This is a fundamental biological mechanism,” said Rune Toftgard of the Karolinska Institute.

In time and after multitudes of cell divisions, those caps degrade, leading to the degeneration of the cells, as we aging folks are experiencing. Knowing about these caps mean that some of those effects might conceivably be reversed, and knocking off the caps might help us defeat the uncontrolled cell division that is cancer.

But those caps are absolutely necessary for life and reproduction. I suppose an atheist materialist would have to say, “Isn’t it lucky that chromosomes randomly generated those little caps?”

But surely this is an example of irreducible complexity. Those little caps couldn’t have evolved, because to have evolution, you must have reproduction. These are necessary for reproduction, which means they have must have first appeared fully-formed.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Bruce Gee

    The last I checked (and I am by no means up on the latest schemes), the atheist materialist scientists were still working on coming up with a mechanism to explain these things which appear to us to have needed to be fully formed “causes”. The beauty of science, though, is its ability to peer into black boxes of natural mystery and continue to find surprises, and ever expanding universes of new insight . The driving desire to explain will lead to more discovery, so let the atheists have their doubts. As an old abbot once told me, “What we call God, atheists call Not-God.”

    I THINK that makes sense…

  • Bruce Gee

    The last I checked (and I am by no means up on the latest schemes), the atheist materialist scientists were still working on coming up with a mechanism to explain these things which appear to us to have needed to be fully formed “causes”. The beauty of science, though, is its ability to peer into black boxes of natural mystery and continue to find surprises, and ever expanding universes of new insight . The driving desire to explain will lead to more discovery, so let the atheists have their doubts. As an old abbot once told me, “What we call God, atheists call Not-God.”

    I THINK that makes sense…

  • WebMonk

    Dr. Veith, I don’t intend to offend here, but I’ve tried rewording this a few different times and it still comes out rough.

    This is a common problem when non-experts start making detailed statements about the finer details of some subject – they can say things that are very blatantly wrong and their words can be accepted by others, and mocked by others.

    “But those caps are absolutely necessary for life and reproduction.”

    “Those little caps couldn’t have evolved, because to have evolution, you must have reproduction. These are necessary for reproduction, which means they have must have first appeared fully-formed.”

    Both of those statements are very obviously false – it is only eukaryotic cells which have telomeres, and not all eukaryotic cells have them either, and they are able to live and reproduce just fine. Many, many other types of cells and life do NOT have telomeres and work just fine. There is an entire branch of cells, prokaryotic cells, none of which have telomeres.

    I’m not trying to say that non-experts should never speak on science, but they should try to do at least a bare minimum of research so they don’t make bizarre and false claims.

    It’s a shame for a Christian to speak forth falsely on a subject while speaking also of God, for when the falsehood is seen, the speaker and his entire message is brought to shame because of the false statement.

    If a non-Christian who knows his biology reads what was just written, he’s going to laugh at the Christians and their message because they’re so dumb that they think telomeres are necessary for life. (that’s a bit of exaggeration, but still fairly accurate.)

    Any chance you could adjust your post so it’s not making such fundamentally false statements?

  • WebMonk

    Dr. Veith, I don’t intend to offend here, but I’ve tried rewording this a few different times and it still comes out rough.

    This is a common problem when non-experts start making detailed statements about the finer details of some subject – they can say things that are very blatantly wrong and their words can be accepted by others, and mocked by others.

    “But those caps are absolutely necessary for life and reproduction.”

    “Those little caps couldn’t have evolved, because to have evolution, you must have reproduction. These are necessary for reproduction, which means they have must have first appeared fully-formed.”

    Both of those statements are very obviously false – it is only eukaryotic cells which have telomeres, and not all eukaryotic cells have them either, and they are able to live and reproduce just fine. Many, many other types of cells and life do NOT have telomeres and work just fine. There is an entire branch of cells, prokaryotic cells, none of which have telomeres.

    I’m not trying to say that non-experts should never speak on science, but they should try to do at least a bare minimum of research so they don’t make bizarre and false claims.

    It’s a shame for a Christian to speak forth falsely on a subject while speaking also of God, for when the falsehood is seen, the speaker and his entire message is brought to shame because of the false statement.

    If a non-Christian who knows his biology reads what was just written, he’s going to laugh at the Christians and their message because they’re so dumb that they think telomeres are necessary for life. (that’s a bit of exaggeration, but still fairly accurate.)

    Any chance you could adjust your post so it’s not making such fundamentally false statements?

  • Jonathan

    What I find interesting is that over time the caps break down, allowing cell function to go from orderly state to disorderly. I see entropy at work and the loss of useful information. When the caps break down, bad stuff happens. Is there an example of how the loss of the caps results in new, useful information arising?

  • Jonathan

    What I find interesting is that over time the caps break down, allowing cell function to go from orderly state to disorderly. I see entropy at work and the loss of useful information. When the caps break down, bad stuff happens. Is there an example of how the loss of the caps results in new, useful information arising?

  • WebMonk

    Jonathan,
    some types of liver cells have lost their entire telomere system, but work just fine without them. They don’t merely “work fine without”, but they work ways that wouldn’t work if there were telomeres in their DNA.

    They’re one of those cells without telomeres that I was referring to up in post 2. Telomeres aren’t necessary for life. They are used in many types of life, but there’s not a chicken-egg problem where life needs telomeres but telomeres can’t exist without life. There’s not a necessity that telomeres come into existence, full-blown, in order for life to exist, like Veith suggested.

    There are different types of telomeres too, some long, some short, some that get “worn down”, some that don’t.

  • WebMonk

    Jonathan,
    some types of liver cells have lost their entire telomere system, but work just fine without them. They don’t merely “work fine without”, but they work ways that wouldn’t work if there were telomeres in their DNA.

    They’re one of those cells without telomeres that I was referring to up in post 2. Telomeres aren’t necessary for life. They are used in many types of life, but there’s not a chicken-egg problem where life needs telomeres but telomeres can’t exist without life. There’s not a necessity that telomeres come into existence, full-blown, in order for life to exist, like Veith suggested.

    There are different types of telomeres too, some long, some short, some that get “worn down”, some that don’t.

  • Steve

    Telomeres are a biological control system. Some cells need to divide indefinitely, some don’t. If the former don’t divide indefinitely, you could die. If the latter do divide indefinitely you could die. Thus telomeres do indeed demonstrate design for particular functions. But that can be said about any part of a living system.

    Webmonk, as a professor I have the same concerns you express in #2 in your second and second to last paragraphs. I’ve had many occasions to cringe when well-meaning Christians without scientific background drag in the second law of thermodynamics into theological discussions and make nonsensical statements in the process (I’ve taught the second law of thermodynamics in college courses so explaining the 2nd law is part of my vocation).

  • Steve

    Telomeres are a biological control system. Some cells need to divide indefinitely, some don’t. If the former don’t divide indefinitely, you could die. If the latter do divide indefinitely you could die. Thus telomeres do indeed demonstrate design for particular functions. But that can be said about any part of a living system.

    Webmonk, as a professor I have the same concerns you express in #2 in your second and second to last paragraphs. I’ve had many occasions to cringe when well-meaning Christians without scientific background drag in the second law of thermodynamics into theological discussions and make nonsensical statements in the process (I’ve taught the second law of thermodynamics in college courses so explaining the 2nd law is part of my vocation).

  • Paul2

    Webmonk and Steve: do you see any examples of irreducible complexity in science; i.e., is it your professional view that the concept of irreducible complexity wrong or are you merely stating that this is not an example of it?

  • Paul2

    Webmonk and Steve: do you see any examples of irreducible complexity in science; i.e., is it your professional view that the concept of irreducible complexity wrong or are you merely stating that this is not an example of it?

  • Steve

    Paul2- I don’t think it pushes the argument in any direction. I was posting primarily to second Webmonk’s plea.

  • Steve

    Paul2- I don’t think it pushes the argument in any direction. I was posting primarily to second Webmonk’s plea.

  • WebMonk

    Paul2 – I’m not a huge fan of irreducible complexity (IC), though I am simultaneously aware of several different things which do indeed seem irreducible. Those things aren’t anywhere near the things that are typically trotted out, like the eye, flagellum, etc.

    The reason I am skeptical about the concept of IC in general is that 20 years ago there were a LOT more things that were considered to be IC. As time has progressed, that list of IC items has kept getting trimmed and trimmed.

    While I don’t see how some things aren’t IC, I am very loath to say with any authority that things truly are IC because the history of the topic seems to be following the path of “vestigial organs” – at one point there were scores of vestigial organs but we’ve eventually found uses for just about all of them. I see the same sort of thing happening to the IC items.

    At this point, I will go out on a limb and say that there aren’t any macro features that are still considered truly IC. (eyes, venus fly traps, heart, brain, etc.) That’s a debatable point, but just barely, and the major proponents of IC have definitely been moving that direction.

    At this point all the IC is down at the microscopic scale, and I suspect that the microscopic things which are considered IC will go the way of their macroscopic cousins. I don’t see how, but that seems to be the flow of learning in this topic.

  • WebMonk

    Paul2 – I’m not a huge fan of irreducible complexity (IC), though I am simultaneously aware of several different things which do indeed seem irreducible. Those things aren’t anywhere near the things that are typically trotted out, like the eye, flagellum, etc.

    The reason I am skeptical about the concept of IC in general is that 20 years ago there were a LOT more things that were considered to be IC. As time has progressed, that list of IC items has kept getting trimmed and trimmed.

    While I don’t see how some things aren’t IC, I am very loath to say with any authority that things truly are IC because the history of the topic seems to be following the path of “vestigial organs” – at one point there were scores of vestigial organs but we’ve eventually found uses for just about all of them. I see the same sort of thing happening to the IC items.

    At this point, I will go out on a limb and say that there aren’t any macro features that are still considered truly IC. (eyes, venus fly traps, heart, brain, etc.) That’s a debatable point, but just barely, and the major proponents of IC have definitely been moving that direction.

    At this point all the IC is down at the microscopic scale, and I suspect that the microscopic things which are considered IC will go the way of their macroscopic cousins. I don’t see how, but that seems to be the flow of learning in this topic.


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