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To Build a Body Plan, Start with a Plan

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Photo: C. elegans, by HoPo, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

What is a body plan if there is no plan behind it? It is not a body but a blob, a formless plop of biological matter not knowing what it is or what is supposed to become. Evolutionists speak of body plans but deny the plan. 

To Build a Body Plan, Start with a Plan

Scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory sought to understand how the plan emerges from a spherical embryo:

Egg cells start out as round blobs. After fertilization, they begin transforming into people, dogs, fish, or other animals by orienting head to tail, back to belly, and left to right. Exactly what sets these body orientation directions has been guessed at but not seen. Now researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) have imaged the very beginning of this cellular rearrangement, and their findings help answer a fundamental question. [Emphasis added.]

In “Imaging the First Moments of a Body Plan Emerging in the Embryo,” Diana Kenney describes two major discoveries made by the group. First, the initial orientation decisions occur when a wave of calcium ions sweeps across the embryo. The scientists noticed that the actin filaments inside the zygote took on uniform directions as the calcium wave passed. 

After fertilization, a calcium ion wave passed through the egg and the actin filaments lined up and contracted along the orientation that was at a right, or 90°, angle to the future back/belly axis. The cytoplasm then moved.This body plan formation process began just after fertilization.

The other major discovery was that both the paternal and maternal gametes have unique roles in orientating the embryo:

The work by Tani and Hirokazu Ishii, reported this week in Molecular Biology of the Cell, shows that both parents contribute to the body orientation of their offspring. For the animal species studied in the research (sea squirts), input from the mother sets the back-belly axis while that of the father does so for the head-tail axis.

“Both the maternal and the paternal cues are required to establish the body plan of the developing animal embryo,” stated Tani.

It’s a bit like laying the cornerstone of a building. Once established, every other structure will be fit to it, and other structures will be fit to subsequent decisions. Building a body plan proceeds on a series of irreversible decisions about orientation and measurement; this is illustrated beautifully in “Embryonic Development” from Flight, a video worth reviewing. The overriding point is that arrival at the finish line — whether a chicken, sea squirt, or human baby — requires a plan to see every step through to the target. A plan requires foresight, and foresight is prima facie evidence for intelligent design.

See also “To Build a Worm” where Paul Nelson points out that the real question is the emergence of the developmental pathway, not just the inventory of parts.

Animal development is the quintessential teleological, or goal-directed, process. It’s an arrow aimed at a distant target. Evolutionary processes, without exception, however, because they are mindless, cannot hit distant targets.

To Build a Crisis Management System, Start with a Plan

Another type of biological system requiring foresight is a crisis management system. This example (as well as the previous one about embryos) also requires oversight, which refers to “supervision, watchful care.” One cannot just flip a calcium-wave switch to get from zygote to a newly hatched chick. Along the route, multiple supervisory modules must communicate with other modules in sophisticated feedback loops to keep every process on track.

Even more so, a crisis management system requires foresight and oversight. Such a system must be able to answer numerous questions up front: What constitutes a crisis? What constitutes a successful resolution? Which tools will be needed to manage the crisis? How quickly must the system respond? What rules will regulate the amount of each repair tool’s contribution to the repair? One doesn’t want to bring along a chain saw with no “off” switch!

Consider the system included in many cells to handle stressful conditions: the heat shock response. Max Planck scientists found out how foresight works in detailed steps with one key player, the negative elongation factor (NELF) process. The needed factors, they found, are packaged and shipped in “droplets” in advance of their operation:

Under stress conditions, cells switch quickly from the normal to the crisis mode to prevent themselves from being damaged. This so-called heat shock response is associated with a rapid downregulation of gene activity to release capacities to cope with the threat. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg have now discovered how exactly a stress-induced molecular droplet formation of the transcription regulator NELF downregulates transcription to promote cell survival upon stress.

This system must be able to recognize multiple types of stress and must fly into action to prevent permanent damage. Transcription of DNA cannot continue; the cell must go into “lockdown” until the danger is past:

Triggered by multiple stress stimuli such as heat, toxins, or radiation, this cellular safety program tries to prevent permanent damage to the organism. The response resembles an overall adopted “lockdown” strategy witnessed during the global corona virus pandemic. During a lockdown, only essential activities are permitted and resources were diverted towards measures ensuring minimizing the impact of a pandemic.

NELF inhibits the activity of RNA polymerase, which normally rushes down the DNA looking for sequences to translate. Think of the foresight and oversight required for the heat shock response system to know which sequences are essential and which can be locked down. The Sawarkar lab at MPG was interested in discerning how the cell figures this out. 

One thing they found was that NELF condensed into droplets at transcription sites under stress, whereas they are normally diffused in the nucleus. NELF particles contain “tentacles” of intrinsically disordered domains that become tagged with elements after undergoing post-transcriptional modifications in stress.

Using genome and proteome-wide molecular and biochemical approaches, the team identified specific Post-translational Modifications (PTMs) that are essential for NELF condensation. PTMs are changes of proteins after their synthesis and are often used by cells to answer environmental stimuli. The results show that two different modifications make NELF condensates possible. “We found that stress -contingent changes in NELF phosphorylation and further SUMOylation governs NELF condensation,” says Ritwick Sawarkar.

As we know by analogy of the coronavirus pandemic, too long a lockdown can have severe and harmful effects. The cell’s two-safety mechanism fine-tunes the stress response, preventing overactive lockdowns while making the toolkit readily available when needed. 

The Sight in Foresight and Oversight

Foresight and oversight do not necessarily require physical eyes. They do, however, require a mind able to visualize a big picture, see a need or a desired outcome, and make it happen. Beyond that, they require the ability to organize players into the system (themselves requiring foresight for their operation) able to get to the target or solve a problem. Marcos Eberlin gave many examples in his book Foresight: How the Chemistry of Life Reveals Planning and Purpose.

These two additional examples from recent scientific literature illustrate the explanatory power of intelligent design. Nowhere in our universal experience does anybody see unplanned, haphazard processes come up with embryonic development or crisis management systems (except, as evolutionists are wont to do, by assertion). No, the systems that we can observe coming into being, such as great works of art, surgical hospitals, air traffic control systems, or computer networks, are always products of mental activity and planning. Using ID to explain embryonic development and the heat shock response, therefore, do not refer to what we don’t know (“it’s too complex to have evolved”) but rather to what we do know: functional systems that show purposeful end-directed activity are always (when we can observe their origination) the result of mental activity; similar systems for which we did not observe their origination, therefore, are best explained by an inference to design, not unguided processes like natural selection.