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Berra’s Blunder in Molecular Motors

Berra's Blunder

Whenever we see new articles and papers about cellular motors like ATP synthase and the flagellum, we get excited, thinking that now, finally, someone might make a design inference that questions Darwinism. That’s why this from Imperial College London, “How bacteria turbocharged their motors,” raised our hopes:

Bacteria use molecular motors just tens of nanometres wide to spin a tail (or ‘flagellum’) that pushes them through their habitat. Like human-made motors, the structure of these nanoscale machines determines their power and the bacteria’s swimming ability.

Previously, the team from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial looked at these motors and discovered a key factor that determined how strongly bacteria could swim. Like human-made motors, bacterial motors have distinct ‘stator’ and ‘rotor’ components that spin against each other. [Emphasis added.]

“Like human-made motors” – great! They see the light. Our hopes were dashed when we discovered that the goal of their research was to vindicate Darwinism:

The team found that the more stator structures the bacterial motor possessed, the larger its turning force, and the stronger the bacterium swam. Despite these differences, DNA sequence analysis shows that the core motors are ancestrally related. This led scientists to question how structure and swimming diversity evolved from the same core design.

OK. But it’s the way that the reporter, Hayley Dunning, explained evolution that was startling. Don’t evolutionists in 2018 know their own theory?

  • Ranking: Flagella with 12 stators are labeled “primitive” but those with 17 stators are ranked “sophisticated.” These are arbitrary adjectives.
  • Lamarckism: The article describes parts of the flagellum “fusing” to allow more stators, and thus graduating to “sophisticated” rank. How mutations did that is not described, nor how the accident became heritable.
  • Saltation: Darwin stressed that “Natural selection … can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps.” Yet this article alleges that flagella suddenly went from primitive to sophisticated versions in one “quantum leap.”
  • Berra’s Blunder: The article claims that extra structures attached to the “sophisticated” flagella illustrate evolution, reminiscent of how Tim Berra asserted that you can see evolution in action by watching how Corvettes added parts between 1953 and 1955.
  • Convergence: Observations show some of the extra structures occurring in unrelated species. She attributes this to the magic wand of convergence: “The extra structures appear to have evolved many times in different species of bacteria, using different building blocks but producing the same functionality.” The writer appeals to convergence in wings and eyes as illustrations.
  • Inevitability and Creativity: Natural selection is supposed to be blind, random and uncaring, but not here!

We’ll let Dr. Morgan Beeby of Imperial College express these blunders in his own words:

Dr. Beeby said: “Bacterial motors are complex machines, but with studies like this we can see how they have evolved in distinct steps.

“Moreover, the ‘leap’ from 12 stators to 17, while a great innovation, has an aspect of ‘biological inevitability’ in the same way as wings, eyes, or nervous systems in higher animals: the precursors of high torque have evolved multiple times, and one set of them ended up fusing to form the scaffold we describe in our work”.

He added: “Evolution is a creative process, often drawing on variations upon a theme. It is constantly churning out new molecular ideas, many of which fail, but inevitably some get realised multiple times. We have seen this in animals, and now we see this process in the nanoscopic world of molecular evolution too.”

Whatever “evolution” Beeby is talking about is surely not Darwin’s variety, or that of neo-Darwinians, either. He has essentially proposed miracles by another name. Does his paper in Nature Scientific Reports do better? He has Bonnie Chaban and Izaak Coleman as co-authors. Will they correct his blunders? Nope. All three embrace the fake Darwinism wholeheartedly. They see design, but attribute it to a “‘quantum leap’ evolutionary event.” They see the addition of new structures the way Berra saw new parts added to intelligently designed automobiles as an illustration of evolution.

One ray of hope breaks through in the middle of the paper, suggesting that ID has penetrated the conscience of these Darwinians, putting them on the defensive:

How did the Campylobacter-type motor evolve from a simpler ancestral motor? During our previous work, we discovered that each accessory protein is essential, posing a conundrum: how could proteins have been added stepwise to form this (naively “irreducibly complex”) motor?

Of course, they do not provide a reference to Darwin’s Black Box, nor define his term irreducible complexity. They don’t deal with co-option problems, genetic codes, or Scott Minnich’s challenges.

But in this backhanded swipe at Michael Behe, calling him naïve, they reveal an awareness that they are playing defense. “To identify a possible incremental evolutionary pathway, we determined a phylogeny…” etc.  Basically, they arrange flagella from different bacterial species the way Berra arranged Corvettes to prove evolution. Their conclusion, however, seems less bombastic than usual: “our structural and phenotypic results enable us to propose a working model for the incremental evolution of the bacterial flagellar motor.” ID is getting under their skin. The callout quote in the news release affirms Darwinism against ID over the loudspeaker:

Bacterial motors are complex machines, but with studies like this we can see how they have evolved in distinct steps.

ATP Synthase

Meanwhile, the other main rotary engine in cells, ATP synthase, has been examined in greater detail than ever before. That is thanks to a cryo-electron microscopy study reported in Nature Communications.

These reconstructions are of higher resolution than any EM map of intact rotary ATPase reported previously, providing a detailed molecular basis for how the rotary ATPase maintains structural integrity of the peripheral stator apparatus, and confirming the existence of a clear proton translocation path from both sides of the membrane.

What does this paper say about evolution? Not much. The Japanese team basically does a lateral pass to other papers for coverage of motor evolution. “Eukaryotic V-ATPases are likely to have evolved from homologous enzymes found in archea and some eubacteria,” they say, with three references to Darwinian papers. The only other mention doesn’t help Darwinians: it refers to “evolutionary conservation of the rotor structure,” once again tossing the ball to another paper.

There’s no mention of phylogeny, ancestry, mutation, natural selection, or any other Darwinian argument. From these papers we can infer that the design argument is having an impact. For one, if there were clear, unambiguous arguments for evolution, scientists would proudly present the evidence for it. For another, they wouldn’t offer indefensible notions like this one from Morgan Beeby:

“We are used to observing evolution at the scale of animals or plants, such as the giraffe’s neck slowly getting longer over time to reach previously inaccessible food.

“However, the evolution at the molecular scale is much more radical. It’s like a giraffe having children with necks suddenly a metre longer.”

Another hopeful sign is that scientists increasingly toss the ball to others to explain how things evolved, rather than try to describe it themselves in a rigorous way. Instead, they seem to focus on the molecular machines’ complexity and efficiency, without Darwinian gloss.

Finally, the occasional back-handed swipes by Darwinians directed against ID concepts, coupled with exasperated attempts to provide stepwise evolutionary models, suggests that intelligent design has not, in fact, escaped their notice. They know, like aging athletes relying on reputation alone, worrying about declining cheers from the stands, that they are playing defense against a young and vigorous challenger.

Photo: Stators, as revealed by cryo-electron microscopy, via Imperial College London.