SEARCHING FOR THE ORIGIN OF LIFE

Chapter 11

WHAT MUTATIONS DO

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Question from Chapter 10

Could mutations be the source of new information needed to make living organisms evolve into new and different living organisms?

DNA and Evolution

Once information has come into being, for evolution to occur the information must be changed and added to by natural processes.  DNA information has been observed to change by natural processes through the process of mutation, but we must ask: Can mutations make one kind of living thing evolve into the new kind of living thing?

To answer this we need to look at what mutations actually do.

Chromosomal Changes

Whole chromosomes or large parts of chromosomes can be lost.  This causes death or serious disability.

Whole chromosomes can be duplicated so that cell has one more than usual.  This adds information, but it is not new information, and results in serious disability or death, e.g. Down's syndrome occur when an extra copy of chromosome 21 is added.

Segments of chromosomes can be detached and moved to another chromosome.  These are called translocations and even though they do not change the sum total of information, they do causes serious disabilities and illness, e.g. leukaemia and lymphoma.

Code Letter Changes

Sometimes a single code letter in a gene is changed.  This may result in a different amino acid being inserted in the protein coded for in that gene.  If substituted amino acid is similar in chemical properties to the original, it may make no difference or it may alter the function of the protein slightly.  However, one change can sometimes a single letter change can make a protein useless.  Whatever happens, it does not make a new and different protein.

Sometimes a code letter is lost completely, or an extra one is added.  This means the base reading machinery reads the wrong combinations of threes and puts together a completely different sequence of amino acids.  The resulting proteins are useless.  These mutations are called frameshift mutations, and they result is the loss of the original useful information.

Effects of Mutation

The word "mutation" simply means "change," but because most mutations are associated with disease or deformity the words "mutation" and "mutant" have come mean "defective".  This is seen in experiments where living things have been deliberately exposed to mutation causing radiation or chemicals. 

Fruit Flies

Fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) have been used for many years to study the effects of changing DNA. Experimenters have exposed fly DNA to radiation and chemicals.  The results have been flies with minor changes to eye colour, flies with varying degrees of disability from altered wing shapes so the fly can't... (fly that is), to massive DNA alterations so the flies die.

Fly DNA + Energy + Time NP Damaging or neutral variations

Humans

Many examples of mutations to human DNA have been described.  They either cause disease or result in some variation of an already existing characteristic.  One reason we are careful about radiation and chemicals in the environment is they are known to be Natural Processes which alter DNA.  No one has suggested we explode nuclear bombs to add radiation to the atmosphere in the hope it might improve the human race by good mutations.  The Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor accident in Russia is still producing disease in the local population.

Human DNA + Energy + Time  NP® Diseases, or Neutral Variations

The effects of all observed mutations on DNA can be summarised:

Matter (DNA) + Energy + Time  NP® lost information, damaged information

Bacteria

One problem in looking for DNA changes is that you don't usually see them until the next generation.  In humans it takes about 20 years to produce the next generation. For this reason most studies on mutations are on short lived organisms such as flies where the next generation is only a few weeks away, or bacteria which may have a generation time of 20 minutes. In such short lived organisms we can observe many generations in a short time.  In 20 years of research we can observe millions of bacterial generations - so experiments on how much evolution can be achieved by natural processes are feasible on bacteria.

To date, all observed bacterial mutations caused by natural process show they have produced only variations of the original bacteria. Such experiments on millions of generations of bacteria have not yet managed to evolve any bacteria even to a different kind of bacteria, let alone produce organisms which are not bacteria.

Bacterial DNA + Energy + Time  NP® Variations of the Original Bacteria

What about antibiotic resistance in bacteria?

After the second world war as penicillin and other antibiotics became freely available it was noticed that bacteria which were initially killed by antibiotics, were slowly becoming immune.  It was thought they were evolving resistance, i.e. their DNA was gaining new information which helped counter the effect of antibiotics.  However, studies on bacteria found in soil stored in containers sealed hundreds of years before the discovery of antibiotics, have shown there has always been some bacteria which carried DNA information for antibiotic resistance. The correct explanation is that originally non-resistant bacteria were killed by the new antibiotics, leaving already resistant bacteria to survive and multiply to become the dominant bacteria in the general population. They did not evolve the resistance, they inherited it.

It has also been discovered that the DNA information for antibiotic resistance is carried on a piece of DNA, called a plasmid, which can be shared with other bacteria, so resistance can spread rapidly through a bacteria population.

What we have observed in bacteria over the past 60 years is a process where useful pre-existing DNA information has been selected for, copied and shared, but not spontaneously generated or evolved.  Natural processes have not been observed to increase the information on bacterial DNA, but they can and do select out information which is already there so it becomes noticed.

Genetic Engineering

The only observed increase in useful DNA information is that produced by genetic engineering.  However genetic engineering is the result of Outside Information being deliberately added to a living organism by an Outside Intelligence, i.e. human scientists.  For example: scientists have been able to take portions of human DNA coding for proteins, such as insulin and insert them into bacteria.  The bacteria's protein making machinery then make insulin, for which the bacteria have no use.  Such insulin can then be harvested and used to treat people diabetics who can't make enough of their own are insulin.  This addition of new information to bacteria has only been observed to happen when creative, intelligent scientists manipulate the bacteria and add DNA information which previously existed outside the bacteria.  This process can be summarised as:

Bacterial DNA (no insulin gene) + E  + T  OI® Bacterial DNA (with insulin gene)

Genetic engineering can be expressed in our formula as:

Matter (DNA) + Energy + Time OI DNA with increased information

Summarising Observed DNA Changes

DNA information can, and is, changed in living cells.

Changes that occur by natural processes cause neutral variation or loss of information.

Often the loss of information causes serious problems or death.

None of the changes made by natural processes results in new, useful information.

The only observed way to introduce new information that gives an organism a new function is by genetic engineering, i.e. deliberate introduction of new DNA by an outside intelligence.

Damage Control

Because of the damage that natural processes do to DNA information it is actually in the interest of living things to protect their DNA from the effects of natural processes.  This means cells actually work at keeping their DNA information unchanged. 

Question

How do cells maintain their DNA information, and what are the implications for evolutionary theory?

We will look at these in the next section.

SUMMARY OF CHAPTER 11

For evolution to occur DNA information must be changed.  Changes to DNA information, called mutations, do occur but they do not change the information in a meaningful way.

Mutations are the result of natural processes acting on the DNA and they degrade the information, which can result in disease or defects in the living organism, but they have not been observed to add any new useful information that would change a living thing into a new kind of living thing.

Because of the potential damage caused by mutations it is important for to cells have built in mechanisms for keeping their DNA intact.

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