Editor’s note: Marcos Eberlin is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, winner of the prestigious Thomson Medal (2016), and former president of the International Mass Spectrometry Society. Eberlin has published close to 1,000 scientific articles and is author of the new book, Foresight: How the Chemistry of Life Reveals Planning and Purpose, from which this essay was adapted.
Biology is in the midst of a gold rush of discovery.
At my previous academic institution, the University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil, I ran for twenty-five years the Thomson Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, where my team and I delved into many areas of chemistry, biochemistry, and medical science that until recently were still too new to have names — everything from proteomics, lipidomics, and mass spectrometry imaging to petroleomics and bacteria fingerprinting.
My research, along with my role as president of the Brazilian Mass Spectrometry Society and the International Mass Spectrometry Foundation, has brought me into contact with other leading researchers in Brazil and around the globe. And when we come together at conferences, the excitement is palpable. Thanks to a cluster of breakthrough technologies and techniques, almost every week reveals some new wonder in the biological realm.
Revelations of Beautiful Ingenuity
Some of these discoveries yield new medicines or medical techniques, such as the abundantly awarded cancer pen recently developed by my daughter Livia. Others give engineers new ideas for inventions in the burgeoning field of biomimetics. Still others have no immediate practical application; they’re just revelations of beautiful biological ingenuity — scientific discovery for its own sake.
All of this new knowledge is exhilarating in its own right. At the same time I am now convinced that many of these discoveries, taken together, point beyond themselves to something even more extraordinary. This new age of discovery is revealing a myriad of artful solutions to major engineering challenges, solutions that for all the world appear to require something that matter alone lacks. I will put this as plainly as I can: This rush of discovery seems to point beyond any purely blind evolutionary process to the workings of an attribute unique to minds — foresight.
Don’t Go There?
And yes, I know: We’re told that it’s out of bounds for science to go there. I take up that claim in the final chapter of my book, Foresight. But regardless of where you ultimately land on the question of what conclusions science should or shouldn’t allow, and whether or not you ultimately affirm that this gold rush of new evidence points to the workings of foresight, I urge you to inspect the evidence. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s done wonders for the scientific enterprise.
The many and ingenious examples uncovered in recent years are so numerous they could fill many large volumes. In my book I highlight only a small fraction of the total. But that fraction is filled with marvels, everything from insect gears and power-punching shrimp to carnivorous plants and a protein machine in the avian eye that may harness quantum entanglement, allowing birds to see Earth’s magnetic field.
Let’s begin, however, with an example that appears mundane — though only at first glance.
A Membrane and Its Channels
Life thrives in our diverse planetary environment, thanks in no small part to the many ways Earth is fine-tuned for life. But Earth can also be extremely hostile to life. The oxygen molecule (O2) is, for instance, essential to life; but only a life form that can efficiently wrap and transport the devil O2 exactly to a place where it can be used as an energy source would benefit from its angel side. Otherwise, O2 becomes life’s greatest enemy.
Rupture the membrane of a living cell, exposing it to the air, and you will see the great damage O2 and a myriad of other chemical invaders can do to a perforated cell. Death would be swift and sure. From an engineering standpoint, then, it was essential that a way be found to protect the cell, life’s most basic unit. The solution was clever: The cell was surrounded by a strong chemical shield, from the very beginning.
It is often said that a solution always brings with it two additional problems, and a cellular membrane shield is no exception. A simple shield could indeed protect the cell interior from deadly invaders, but such a barrier would also prevent cell nutrients from reaching the inside of the cell, and it would trap cellular waste within. Small neutral molecules could pass through the membrane, but not larger and normally electrically charged biomolecules. A simple shield would be a recipe for swift, sure death. For early cells to survive and reproduce, something more sophisticated was needed. Selective channels through these early cell membranes had to be in place right from the start.
Cells today come with just such doorways, specialized protein channels used in transporting many key biomolecules and ions. How was this selective transport of both neutral molecules and charged ions engineered? Evolutionary theory appeals to a gradual, step-by-step process of small mutations sifted by natural selection, what is colloquially referred to as survival of the fittest. But a gradual step-by-step evolutionary process over many generations seems to have no chance of building such wonders, since there apparently can’t be many generations of a cell, or even one generation, until these channels are up and running. No channels, no cellular life.
So then, the key question is: How could the first cells acquire proper membranes and co-evolve the protein channels needed to overcome the permeability problem?
The Great Difficulty
Even some committed evolutionists have confessed the great difficulty here. As Sheref Mansy and his colleagues put it in the journal Nature, “The strong barrier function of membranes has made it difficult to understand the origin of cellular life.”
And that’s putting it delicately. Somehow, a double-layer membrane — flexible, stable, and resistant — needed to be engineered, one that would promptly and efficiently protect the cell from the devastating O2 permeation, remain stable in aqueous acid media, and ably handle fluctuations in temperature and pH. To do all these tasks, the cell’s molecular shield also would need a mechanism to sense changes in temperature and pH, and react accordingly, adjusting the membrane’s chemical composition to handle these physical and chemical changes.
For instance, as Diego de Mendoza explains, bacterial cells “remodel the fluidity of their membrane bilayer” by incorporating “proportionally more unsaturated fatty acids (or fatty acids with analogous properties) as growth temperature decreases.” The process is known as homoviscous adaptation. Cell membranes, in other words, can initiate a series of cellular responses that react to a change in environmental temperature.
All or Nothing!
If you were to bid this demanding, multifaceted job out to the most technologically advanced engineering firms in the world, their top engineers might either laugh in your face or run screaming into the night. The requisite technology is far beyond our most advanced human know-how. And remember, getting two or three things about this membrane job right — or even 99 percent of the job — wouldn’t be enough. It is all or death! A vulnerable cell waiting for improvements from the gradual Darwinian process would promptly be attacked by a myriad of enemies and die, never to reproduce, giving evolution no time at all to finish the job down the road.
It seems, then, from all the biochemical knowledge we now have, that the cell membrane’s many crucial requirements had to be foreseen, and delivered on time, for the earliest cells to survive and reproduce in an aqueous environment.
And that’s just the beginning of the foresight apparently required to deliver a membrane good enough to make cellular life viable.