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Future Tech of the Past

Why our best technology is still far behind living systems

            What if nanotechnology could design microscopic machines? That is the goal of many engineers in this burgeoning field. Need to deliver molecules to specific locations within your cells? Sure. Need to create microscopic engines to propel miniature machines around in the body? Of course. What about producing energy using turbine motors? Why not? These machines seem like the future straight out of science fiction, but we may someday reach these lofty goals.

            Why do I think that these grand schemes may be within our reach? With the increase in our technology and knowledge of the world at the cellular level, we not only have growing confidence in our capabilities; we actually know it has been done before. That’s right, these things already exist!

            Within each of your cells, we can already see such engineering marvels. The first molecule is an enzyme called kinesin. In a literal step by step walking motion, this molecular machine walks along the microtubules of the inside of your cells, hauling shipping containers or messages behind them from one spot to the other. These machines can definitely do the fast step, seeing that they can often hit 100 steps per second.[1] With every molecule of ATP (the energy rich “battery” of the cell), kinesin takes another step. Such walking wonders have numerous roles within the cell, and as such are likely numbered in the thousands in a single cell.

Kinesin enzyme hauling a vesicle of cargo

            What about the microscopic motor mentioned before? We can find that in the cellular flagellum. This whip-like appendage acts as an outboard motor, sharing uncanny similarities to the motor on a speedboat. With a rotor, stator, hook, and propeller, the flagellum lines up with boat motors incredibly well. The long whip like tail spins at speeds passing 100,000 rotations per minute, handling the extreme torque with ease.[2] It could be said that this motor is actually superior in many ways to those made by mankind’s best engineers.

The flagellar motor and propeller shaft

            The third nano-machine seems like more of a stretch compared to the others. Is a microscopic turbine that produces energy really within the realm of possibilities for us to create? Well, we already have the designs laid out for us within the cell. As pretty much every high school student in biology remembers, the mitochondrion is the powerhouse of the cell. Using a process called the electron transport chain on the inner membrane of the mitochondria, your sugars, fats, and proteins from your last meal are broken down and used to fuel a process that allows for the flow of ions through a turbine machine called ATP Synthase. The ions flow naturally through an opening in this enzyme apparatus, giving it the momentum to spin. Like a waterwheel at an old sawmill, the flow of these ions through the turbine is harnessed to do work. It is at these ATP Synthases that ATP, the battery molecule, is energized, being revitalized like a rechargeable battery. With relative ease, such molecules produce the vital ATP that runs the majority of functions with the cell, even the functions of the previously mentioned kinesin and flagella motors. Dr. Bowman, emeritus professor of biology at UC Santa Cruz estimated that each mitochondrion contains approximately 320,000 ATP Synthase turbines! This produces millions of ATP molecules per second in every body cell.[3]

           Any description of molecular machinery would be incomplete without the DNA polymerase machine. In each of most of our cells, we have an entire copy of the human genome (all 3.2 BILLION base pairs of it!). To put it in perspective, the DNA that fits within the microscopic nucleus of each of our body cells (excluding red blood cells), when unwound, would stretch about 6 feet in length![4] Every time a cell needs to divide, it must first duplicate all this DNA. This is where our friendly neighborhood polymerase comes in. This enzyme machine, with the help of other enzyme machines that prepare its path, comes in and starts to read the two open sides of the DNA. Not only does it read the base pairs of both sides, it puts down a complimentary copy of each individual base pair for each side as it goes! You could say that DNA polymerase is a nanoscale copy machine. Some of the fastest polymerases can lay as many as 1,000 base pairs per second![5] If a human tried to type that fast, you could expect the majority of the page to be riddled with errors. Not so here! DNA polymerase only makes about 1 error in 10,000 base pairs! But it gets better: DNA polymerase also comes equipped with its own spell checker! With this added proofreading capability, it improves its replication fidelity about 100-fold![6] Without such a function, harmful (and often fatal) mutations would be far more prevalent within our genomes. After all, what has been described is only one of the 30 trillion cells within a human body! Polymerase must be fine-tuned for optimal efficiency to tackle such tasks.

DNA polymerase (along with other enzymes like Helicase, Primase, Ligase, etc.) during DNA replication

            So, can our engineers build such machines at such tiny scales? So far, we have not, but we have great templates to copy from. But shouldn’t this make us wonder how such machines came about in the first place? If our greatest minds in the world cannot easily replicate such intricate and efficient machines, could a blind and unguided process be the cause of their entry onto the world stage? Many evolutionists must assume that natural processes, given enough time, could produce such a list of incredible engineering feats; however, such belief requires tremendous faith since no such process has ever been discovered that could produce such machines. Engineering in principle requires foresight, the ability to look ahead and plan out the best possible configuration. After that, the parts are put in place all at once for functionality to begin. If you’re missing a part here or there, or they are in the wrong places, you will not have a functional machine.

            When you think about it, anything that a random process can produce should be easily replicated by an intelligent agent in a fraction of the time. For example, if a random process can scatter scrabble tiles into the sentence “What does the fox say?” with enough time, shouldn’t a person be able to purposefully place such tiles in the same configuration in a miniscule fraction of the time it took the natural processes? The same goes for our molecular motors. After thousands of years of technological development and incredible leaps in understanding of the natural world, we as a species have come to realize that we are still well behind the level of engineering we have already had within us since we first stood up on this planet.

            When we study these molecular machines (which our four mentioned here are but a meager sampling of) without the preconceived notions of naturalism, we are inevitably drawn towards the conclusion that such machines are the products of an intelligent agent, just as our various motors and turbine machines are. It would be laughable to conclude that the engine of my Honda was the product of blind chance and natural processes because we as humans can naturally detect design in such things. If such a vehicle’s motor is so obviously designed, why must we ignore such logical thoughts when it comes to the origins of cellular equipment?  If kinesin, the flagellum, ATP Synthase and DNA Polymerase are all so efficient to be still beyond our current level of engineering in 2020, why not conclude that an even greater engineer designed them before us?








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