Defining Evolution 15: More on Mutations

The days had flown by like five minutes under water, and we once again dragged our weary bodies into Danny’s Bar, Grill, and House of Rabblerousing for the plate of Nachos which is so big it has to be factored into calculations when attempting to put satellites into orbit. Between the first quarter analysis projection spreadsheets and the resulting meetings, round table discussions, and memorandums, I thought my brain could do no more for the week, but the friends around the round table near the dartboard would spur my tired grey matter into further activity.NACHOS logoCarl, Bill, Tom, and Blue Beard were all nursing root beers when I arrived, and I could tell by the looks on their faces when I walked in that there would be no time wasted on pleasantries.

“There’s our gentleman and scholar,” remarked Blue Beard.

“What ho fellows,” I grunted wearily. “You all seem a bit bright eyed for a day which seems to have lasted, by my calculations, a bit longer than the Roman Empire did.”

“We’re talking science,” said Tom.

“Without me?” I replied. “I hope you saved some fun for yours truly.”

“We’re talking about mutations again,” said Tom. “Very simply, I realized that I need more information if I’m going to discount mutations as an improbable.”

“I’ve done some homework myself,” said Carl. “I’ve got an article here by New Scientist that explains how many mutations we’ve observed which do create new genetic information. Listen to this;

“Most mutations can be reversed by subsequent mutations – a DNA base can be turned from an A to a G and then back to an A again, for instance. In fact, reverse mutation or “reversion” is common. For any mutation that results in a loss of information, logically, the reverse mutation must result in its gain. So the claim that mutations destroy information but cannot create it not only defies the evidence, it also defies logic.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13673-evolution-myths-mutations-can-only-destroy-information/

“Can I at least get a root beer?” I asked.

“Right behind you, sweetie,” said Wendy, handing me a tall frosty mug of compassion. She calls everyone “sweetie,” but like I always say, that the sun shines on everyone doesn’t make it feel any less warm.

“Thank you, Wendy,” I said to her. “Now, Carl, lets go over this quote again. The point is that mutations can be reversed?”

“That’s right.”

“So the cell corrects the mutation, causing the net result to be… nothing?”

“It’s called a reversion,” said Carl. “The cell adds back the missing information, and as the article said, it logically must result in the addition of the information which was lost.”

“Carl, that’s called spell check. It’s correcting its own mistakes so that they are repaired and no changes are actually made, long term.”

“But I think the point is well made,” said Carl, “when they say, “For any mutation that results in a loss of information, logically, the reverse mutation must result in its gain. So the claim that mutations destroy information but cannot create it not only defies the evidence, it also defies logic.”

“Carl, when you read idiots who don’t understand logic it only makes us all dumber.”

“Name calling won’t change the facts, Rent old boy.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Forgive me. It’s been a super long day. But this article seems to have been written by a twit. He’s essentially said that an error, when corrected, is a net gain in new genetic information. And that’s stupid.”

“Why?” demanded Carl.

“Come on Carl!” exclaimed Blue Beard. “When NOTHING new is gained, then nothing new is gained! The semantic trick this twit is playing is saying that the repair of a mutation is itself also a mutation, calling a repair an addition of information, then claiming that it disproves the idea that mutations only destroy information. All that leaves you with is the fact that mutations, UNLESS REPAIRED by the cell’s complex and information saturated editing system, have only been seen to destroy existing information.”

“Besides that,” added Bill, “I don’t think the point was ever that no change could ever fix existing information. The point against evolution is that no mutation has ever been seen to create new genetic information.”

“Seriously Carl,” I said, “you need to read this garbage before you throw it at me in this victorious manner. You find some twit who’s anxious to say creationists are illogical and you fail to catch a very obvious flaw in his logic.”

“What flaw?” demanded Carl. “He’s shown that mutations- changes in the DNA- can be seen to increase the genetic information! That proves YOU were wrong for saying mutations never create new genetic information!”

“Carl, will a new gene for a new feature ever be made by a system repairing a change so that there is no net change?”

“No, but that’s not the point…”

“What’s the point?”

“Well… any change in information is new information…”

“No, Carl, it’s not. Look, it’s been a long day and I’m not meaning to be rude, but I don’t have the energy to deal with stupid. A misspelling is not a new word, it’s the loss of a word. Correcting a misspelling is also not a new word. A broken machine is not a new machine, and repairing a broken machine is not the invention of a new one. A corrupted gene is not new information. Get a clue. Tom, what was your question?” I already knew what the look on Carl’s face would be, so I didn’t bother to look.

“Rent-A-Friend is feisty today,” mused Blue Beard.

“Sorry,” I said, drinking deeply my root beer. “Long day. Tom?”

“Well, I got the idea last week that mutations are so improbable that they should be considered impossible,” recalled Tom, “but what are the numbers that back that up? It seems that, even an improbable event can happen, and given enough time and enough chances the improbable can become possible.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Bill, what can you tell us about proteins?”

“According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information,

“Proteins come in a wide variety of shapes, and they are generally between 50 and 2000 amino acids long.”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26830/

“And what are proteins again?” asked Tom.

“Sorry, Tom,” said Bill. “Proteins are the molecules which cells are made of. If a cell is a car, then an amino acid chain is a sheet of metal, and a protein is a sheet of metal which has been bent into the shape of a muffler, or a piston, or anything else in the car pretty much.”

 

“So, cells are made of proteins?” asked Tom.

 

“In short,” said Bill, “yes. In long- cells are made of organelles, which are made of membranes and machines, much of which is made of proteins. DNA codes for amino acids, which are linked together in the order coded for in the DNA, and then the chain of amino acids is folded like origami and put wherever it needs to be used by the cell.”

 

“I think I get it” said Tom. “So the DNA codes for amino acids, which are folded into proteins, which are assembled to make organelles, which together make a cell?”

 

“That’s the whole truth, Jack!” exclaimed Bill, slapping the table.

 

“And the reason mutations matter,” said Tom, “is because they can change what amino acid goes in the chain, and thus what protein gets made as a result.”

 

“Which changes the cell,” said Bill, “which might change the tissue and thus organ its part of in the organism.”

 

“This junk gets complex,” said Blue Beard honestly.

 

“Well, hold onto your shorts,” said Bill. “Because we’re gonna add some math. I’ve got some different numbers from different sources, but all basically the same. First, here’s the range we’re talking about:

 

“An average eukaryotic protein contains around 500 amino acids but some are much smaller… and some much larger (the largest to date is titin a protein found in skeletal and cardiac muscle; one version contains 34,350 amino acids in a single chain!).

http://users.rcn.com/jkimball.ma.ultranet/BiologyPages/P/Proteins.html

 

“34,350 amino acids!” exclaimed Tom. “How much DNA does it take to code for that protein?”

 

“3 ‘letters’ in DNA codes for one amino acid,” sad Bill.

 

“Which means it takes 103,050 DNA letters to code for that one protein!” said Tom, sincerely impressed. I was also sincerely impressed by how fast Tom did that calculation in his head.

 

“And Carl wants us to think that all 103,050 of those letters,” explained Blue Beard, “came to be in that order by a spell checker correcting mistakes.”

 

“That’s not…” began Carl, but he stopped either because he knew how futile it would be to argue with Blue Beard, or because he knew Blue Beard has accurately explained his most recent folly.

 

“According to the web site www.learner.org,” said Bill, “the average protein has 200-300 amino acids. A typical bacterium requires more than 4,000 proteins for growth and reproduction.”

 

“Which means,” said Tom effortlessly, “a typical bacterium needs a genome of around two and a half million letters.”

 

“A 12pt, single spaced page,” I added, “has approximately 3,000 characters, which means letters and spaces. So this typical bacterium genome, if typed out would require how many pages?”

 

Tom blinked a few times and said, “More than 800. Something like 833 pages.”

 

“Pages created by correcting misspellings,” said Blue Beard, determined not to let it lie. Carl rolled his eyes and refused to respond.

 

“The smallest collection of DNA for any organism we know of,” said Bill, always a wealth of information, “belongs to Carsonella ruddi. Carsonella ruddii only has 182 genes, written in 160,000 base pairs- which means 160,000 DNA letters.”

 

“Printed out, it would fill about 50 pages,” said Tom.

 

“That’s how many pages are in Green Eggs and Ham,” I said.

 

Hey, I know stuff too.

 

“And I’d like to remind us,” said Blue Beard, “that the fifty pages of information it takes to make that one, very simplest cell, somehow wrote itself and then built a cell to live in. Right Carl? I mean, I think we can all agree that Green Eggs and Ham could have written itself, with no Dr Seuss. Why not the same number of pages, but without pictures, and all of which codes for the making and running of self-replicating machinery?”

 

“Just because you don’t know how it happened…” began Carl.

 

“Fifty pages!” interrupted Blue Beard. “But what READS those fifty pages? Well, there’s machines in the cell what reads it, ain’t there? But where does they come from? Well, thems coded for in the DNA, ain’t they! So without DNA, you can’t build the machines, but without the machines, nothing reads the DNA to build what it codes for, but if nothing builds what it codes for, then, there’s nothing to read the DNA and build anything even if FIFTY PAGES OF INFORMATION MANAGED TO WRITE ITSELF.” This last part was directed toward Carl, who, true to form, refused to respond.

 

“But back to Tom’s math question,” said Bill. “Dr. Carl Werner, in his book “Evolution the Grand Experiment” makes it easier by assuming much smaller numbers:

Let’s say an average Protein needs 300 amino acids. We know it takes 3 Nucleotides to code for one Amino Acid. Let’s say there are 20 proteins needed for the first cell

Thus: 3 Nucleotides x 300 Amino Acids x 20 Proteins = 18,000 DNA Letters.

 

Tom blinked thoughtfully for a moment. “That’s around 11% of the DNA you said was in the smallest genome we know of. So we’re assuming today’s simplest cell has ten times as much genetic information as this hypothetical first cell.”

 

“That’s right,” said Bill. “Dr. Werner decided to stack the deck in favor of that first cell. Now, here’s a few numbers to keep in mind before continuing. Tom, write these down. First: Your odds of ever being hit by lightning is 1 in 10,000 (Or, 1 in 10 to the 4th). The odds of winning the national Powerball Lottery EVERY DAY FOR A YEAR is 1 in 10 to the power of 2,881.”

 

“Hold on now,” said Blue Beard. “What’s this power of?”

 

“The power of,” said Tom, “means how many zeros you would write behind it, or how many times you multiply ten by ten. So, a hundred is ten times ten, or 1 with two zeros, so it’s ten to the 2nd power. A million is ten to the power of six, and is a one with six zeros after it.”

 

“So the odds of winning the lottery every day for a year,” said Blue Beard, “would be one chance in… ten to the power of 2,881. So, it would take 2,881 zeroes to write out that number?”

 

“That’s right, Jack.”

 

“Oh, that reminds me,” I said, digging through my bag of tricks. “Last week we had talked about flipping a coin so that it landed heads up a thousand times in a row. Remember?”

 

“That’s right,” said Tom. “We said it was possible but highly improbable.”

 

“Would you like to know HOW improbable?” I asked.

 

“Certainly.”

 

“According to a Coin Toss Probability Calculator I found at http://calculator.tutorvista.com/coin-toss-probability-calculator.html

the odds would be one chance in 9.33264×10 to the power of 302.”

 

“So easier than winning the lottery every day for a year?” asked Blue Beard.

 

“Decidedly so,” answered Tom.

 

“Now, to give all of you some sense of scale,” said Bill. “The Number of Atoms in the visible Universe*- the whole UNIVERSE, you understand?- is 10 to the power of 80.”

 

“That’s it?” asked Blue Beard. “You sure it isn’t eighty thousand or something?”

 

“Very sure,” said Bill. “Of course, that’s only an estimate. I always lose count around ten to the power of 65 atoms. Anyways, this brings us back to the beginning. Let’s say an average Protein needs 300 amino acids. We know it takes 3 Nucleotides to code for one Amino Acid. Let’s say there are 20 proteins needed for the first cell

Thus: 3 Nucleotides x 300 Amino Acids x 20 Proteins = 18,000 DNA Letters.”

 

“Right,” said Tom. “I’ve got that.”

 

“To get all 18,000 nucleotides in the right order by chance is 1 in 10 to the power of 10,832. You are more likely to get hit by lighting 700 times than you are to win the lottery every day for a year, BUT,” he blurted out for emphasis, “You are almost four times more likely to win the lottery EVERY DAY FOR A YEAR than to get the single DNA strand a simple cell needs by chance.”

 

“Yet Carl,” said Blue Beard, “and some very popular as-seen-on-TV scientists like him, still believe that this DID happen. Oh, and then somehow it built its own cell to live in.”

 

“So when Carl tries to paint this conversation as science vs blind faith,” I added, “do you see why I insist that I am on the side of science?”

 

Carl grunted and looked away, but apparently had nothing to say. Tom, on the other hand, was starting to get the picture.

 

“The first cell does seem unlikely,” he said. “But how does all of this tie into mutations after we have cells alive and reproducing?”

“A very good question,” I said. “Let me give you some literary background to explain it. One page of text holds about 3000 characters– that’s MS Word, size 12 font with default margins. The Human Genome (The complete list of our DNA) is made up of Three Billion base pairs, arranged in 46 chromosomes. Thus there are about 65,000,000 base pairs per chromosome. How many pages is that?”

“65,000,000 Base pairs per chromosome/ 3000 characters per page = 21,666 pages of text per chromosome,” replied Tom.

“There are about 4,000 pages of text in the seven book Harry Potter Series. Thus one chromosome is as much information- if written out- as about 5 ½ copies of the entire Harry Potter series.”

“That’s a lot of information,” Tom observed.

“And the human genome,” I continued, “would be equal to about almost 250 copies of the entire Harry Potter Series. That’s 250 copies of the whole seven book series, which took eight movies to translate to DVD. To watch 250 copies of all eight movies would take more than…” I hesitated because I was an art major.

“More than a hundred and sixty days,” said Tom. “Almost five and a half months.”

“Now check out this list of Chromosomes and potential diseases ** which come from a corruption of that information,” said Bill, holding up his personal computation device. “There are genetic problems from irritating to deadly which can come about because of as little as ONE WRONG LETTER. Life threatening conditions like Sickle Cell Anemia can result from a single LETTER being wrong in this vast collection of information.”

“Imagine,” I said, “that you had to make 250 copies of the entire Harry Potter series, but if you got one letter wrong, you might die. The reason I am bringing this up is because misspellings- aka: Mutations- are the ONLY mechanism evolution has of making new genetic information so that bacteria can eventually become cabbages and wolves.
“Imagine I have given you one copy of Green Eggs and Ham (But written accidentally with no Dr Seuss) and I want you to change it into 250 copies of the Harry Potter series through random, blind, accidental misspellings. Some random misspellings won’t do anything, but, just as an example, let’s assume that if you misspell anyone’s name, you die. But take all the time you need.”

“I think I have a real world example of how delicate all of that DNA is,” said Bill. “Here’s a little something from “http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/HBB”

Nearly 400 mutations in the HBB gene have been found to cause beta thalassemia. Most of the mutations involve a change in a single DNA building block (nucleotide) within or near the HBB gene.

“In short,” explained Bill, “there are almost 400 places where changing as few as one nucleotide can distort or destroy red blood cells.”

“Yet, this is the blind, random, accidental process,” I reminded us, “which is alleged to create these genes in the first place. What are the odds that this will ever result in new and better genes?”

“It’s..” stuttered Tom. “Well, it’s like trying to flip a coin heads up a thousand times.”

“This is the evolutionary story,” I reminded him. “If this DID happen, then this is proof that God was working regular miracles the entire time, because there is no WAY this was going to happen by chance. I don’t care if you do have four billion years. You could have eight billion years and a team of PhD’s working around the clock and you aren’t going to live to find out what a “Muggle” is.”

“A whats?” asked Blue Beard.

“It’s a word from the Harry Potter books,” I explained.

Blue Beard grunted his disinterest and went back to his root beer.

“Like we’ve said,” I continued, “making new information through mutations is not technically impossible, just as flipping a coin heads up a thousand times in a row is not impossible. But both are so unlikely that we can safely declare that they will never happen. Furthermore, the study of genetics has shown us how fine tuned the DNA information is. Every gene we’ve studied shows the potential for harmful and deadly mutations, but none have shown the ability to be improved by blind chance. Some genetic disorders are caused by as little as one spelling mistake among thousands or even millions of DNA letters. Mutations are a hypothetical, but will never be an actual mechanism of evolutionary change. All things considered, it would take a lot more faith than I have to believe that EVERY living thing on earth came about by blind, accidental mutations.”

As if on cue, our friend and waitress, Wendy, came out with our Nachos just as I finished maxing eloquent. Quickly we dug into the pile of chicken and cheese and jalapeños and olives and… well, you get the idea. Nachorama! My brain, completely spent, I was happy to fade into the sound of nachos being consumed by good friends on a Thursday night.

Happy Nachos! And thanks for letting me be your Rent-A-Friend.

*http://www.universetoday.com/36302/atoms-in-the-universe/

Dr. Carl Werner, Evolution the Grand Experiment, 2007

 

** http://web.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/posters/chromosome/index.shtml#chooser

 

The odds of Flipping a coin heads up a thousand times in a row is 1 in 9.33264 x10 to the power of 302.

Or,

1 chance in 933264000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000000.

In case you wanted to see what that number looked like.

 

 

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