February 15, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

NASA Promotes Natural Miracles

To know the vast improbabilities, and yet to leap over them with imaginary stories – that’s deceiving the public.

Suppose an unlucky soul has to win a thousand powerball lotteries to pay his debts, but tells his creditors, “Well, it could happen.” Does a person like that deserve credit? And yet our federal space agency, NASA, fully aware of the difficulties of getting life to ’emerge’ by chance, talks like that. Let’s see what an entry in NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine admits about the difficulties they face:

Life relies on the intricately folded amino acid chains known as proteins for practically every chemical task. Proteins catalyze chemical reactions throughout the cell, stitch RNA strands together, transport molecules around the cell and control what enters and leaves through the membrane. A modern cell cannot be a cell without them.

However, proteins pose a problem for scientists who study the beginnings of life. Present-day proteins have had the benefit of billions of years of evolution. They are highly specialized and, compared to most molecules, they are enormous. The odds of such lengthy amino acid chains forming “out of the blue” in life’s primordial soup are beyond astronomical.

“Beyond astronomical.” Think of it: astronomical odds are hard enough, but ‘beyond astronomical’ is, for all practical purposes, miraculous. It’s nice of NASA to admit that, but the admission doesn’t go far enough. One must visualize analogies like “The Amoeba’s Journey” from Illustra Media’s film Origin to even begin to grasp just how ‘beyond astronomical’ this ‘problem’ is. Illustra’s animation is only for a 150-amino-acid protein, much smaller than the average length of proteins in living cells. Can anyone think of a phrase for “beyond ‘beyond astronomical'”? That’s the challenge for those who insist on limiting their scientific explanations to chance and natural law.

Our unlucky soul, before being tossed out the creditor’s office door (or window), might try some fast talking. “Actually, I can imagine some scenarios where I might actually win a thousand powerballs, but I would have to start simple. I can show this in a computer simulation. In my simulation, after I win the first one, I could use my winnings to buy more tickets for the second one. The second winning ticket might be naturally selected to win the third, and the fourth, and so on. Eventually I could get to my goal step by step. Looking back after billions of years of lottery evolution, it would look like a miracle, but it was really very natural. If you just will loan me more money, I can demonstrate this with my computer simulation.” This is exactly how NASA leaps over ‘beyond astronomical’ in a single bound.

To help answer these questions, Andrew Pohorille, senior astrobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center, and his colleagues have been running computer simulations of hypothetical ancient proteins. In a paper published in the journal Life in June 2017, they detailed two unconventional protein structures that could have been useful in primordial cells.

While most modern proteins are rigid, specialist molecules with complex structures, these hypothetical early proteins would have been more flexible, but less efficient and precise, Pohorille argues.

“These were the handymen of proteins,” Pohorille says. “In the beginning evolution did not require the high level of precision that we have now.

Can anyone doubt that the allusion to Genesis, “in the beginning,” represents a religious speculation equivalent to a miracle? There are numerous problems with this fast-talking excuse:

  • Do “computer simulations” substitute for physical reality? No.
  • Do “hypothetical ancient proteins” substitute for empirical evidence in the lab? No.
  • Do “unconventional protein structures that could have been useful” substitute for real protein structures? No.
  • Do speculations about proteins being more flexible amount to laboratory evidence? No.
  • Do “flexible, but less efficient and precise” proteins escape error catastrophe? No.
  • Do any proteins we know of get built without ribosomes? No.
  • Do naturally-produced amino acids come in single-handed forms? No.
  • Did evolution ever not require a high level of precision? No.
  • Does calling a protein a “handyman” endow it with powers to create handy things? No.

The storyteller deserves to be tossed out onto the curb before he opens his mouth, but NASA lets him talk. Pohorille endows his “strange, new protein” that is “very unlike proteins seen in modern cells” with seemingly magical powers. Like the Cat-in-the-Hat, his magical protein cleans up all the problems just as the parents walk in the door.

This strange, new protein could do an important job and remain functional despite mutations, and it was small enough that something like it could have plausibly formed on the early Earth without billions of years of evolutionary fine-tuning.

Pohorille continues, talking about how ‘short’ proteins can do all kinds of wonderful things. He fails to acknowledge, though, that it can only do these wonderful things in cells with thousands of other large proteins. The most basic ‘primordial’ cell must have genetic codes, machinery to read them and convert those codes into proteins, and machines to capture nutrients and convert substances into energy. That energy must be directed for metabolism and many other functional requirements. See the basic needs of a ‘simple’ cell in Illustra’s animation, “How to Build a Cell.” His perhapsimaybecouldness index skyrocketing, Pohorille chatters on:

To form a stable tunnel through the membrane, these proteins have to form a stable tunnel through the membrane that can be opened and closed to molecular traffic. The cell membrane is 18 to 20 amino acids wide; anything smaller won’t span the entire barrier. However, when Pohorille and his colleagues simulated the structures of channels formed by a 16-amino-acid-long protein called antiamoebin, which is presumably too small to span the cell membrane, they found that clusters of these short proteins could form channels of a different nature. These channels were unstable, constantly shifting, and would sometimes close and then reopen, but they were large enough to let potassium and chloride ions through, as well as water molecules.

This speculation fails to recognize the role of transport proteins: to control what goes in and out.  An unguided pore through a membrane is likely to swamp the cell with useless or toxic substances, by the laws of osmosis. It would have no ‘selectivity filter’ to go against the concentration gradient. Nor would it have energy from ATP, requiring the complex ATP synthase motors, to power the channels. As a result, potassium and chloride ions and water would go the wrong way through the membrane, and the ‘primordial’ cell would quickly die. But even in his wildest imagination, envisioning short proteins with “candidate structures” able to perform a few tasks, Pohorille knows better. He knows he wouldn’t have life.

“Many people think of the origin of life as a problem in organic chemistry: how to make this or how to make that,” says Pohorille. “I could give you all these molecules, and you will still not be able to make life. The essence of life is that you have a number of functions, and these functions are capable of working in concert.”

This is like the debtor admitting in the end that there’s no way he can pay. And yet NASA willingly shells out more dough for him. We learn in the last sentence, “Pohorille’s work was supported by NASA Astrobiology through the Exobiology & Evolutionary Biology Program and performed at the NASA Ames Research Center and the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center.”

That’s your taxpayer dollars at work, folks. Are you angry yet? It is ‘beyond astronomical’ to imagine why anyone would give this program a penny. These storytellers deserve something far worse: shame and reproach by the scientists who respect real empirical evidence for things. Maybe even jail time for promoting fake science with taxpayer funds.

 

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