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Whether Lab or Cell, It's Design

Art may sometimes imitate nature, but increasingly engineering is doing it, too. Some recent nano-engineering projects were inspired by cellular machines. They're hailed as great successes in engineering, but they don't do nearly as good a job as the natural ones. If human engineers in the lab get molecular machines to imitate cellular machines, it's intelligent design. What does this imply about the cellular machines?

Take the little gadget announced in Nature Nanotechnology. What does it do? It can spin clockwise or counterclockwise. That doesn't at first sound like such a huge deal as machines go, yet the news release from Ohio State brags, "Scientists design, control movements of molecular motor." (Emphasis added.) The designers were "the first to create a stand-alone molecular motor that has multiple parts" -- the first human engineers, that is.

The bragging rights are deserved, even though the scientists had to cool the gadget to -450 degrees Fahrenheit to control the energy input. "If we want to build an actual device based on this motor, we would install electrodes on the surface to create an energy source," the lead researcher said. None of their work was left to chance: "The scientists now plan to use this model to build more complex machines with components that could be automated." They'll have a long, long way to go to approach the sophistication of ATP synthase or the bacterial flagellum.

An even more noteworthy nanomachine was announced in Science this month. A dozen researchers in the UK built a gadget that can assemble amino acids. The headline reads, "Sequence-Specific Peptide Synthesis by an Artificial Small-Molecule Machine" -- and it was inspired by the cell's sequence translator, the ribosome.

The ribosome builds proteins by joining together amino acids in an order determined by messenger RNA. Here, we report on the design, synthesis, and operation of an artificial small-molecule machine that travels along a molecular strand, picking up amino acids that block its path, to synthesize a peptide in a sequence-specific manner.
Design, design, design: that is the key word in the paper. It appears throughout, in contrast to evolution, which is notably absent:
Here, we report on the design, synthesis, and operation of a rotaxane-based small-molecule machine in which a functionalized macrocycle operates on a thread containing building blocks in a predetermined order to achieve sequence-specific peptide synthesis. The design of the artificial molecular machine is based on several elements that have analogs in either ribosomal or nonribosomal protein synthesis: Reactive building blocks (the role played by tRNA-bound amino acids) are delivered in a sequence determined by a molecular strand (the role played by mRNA). A macrocycle ensures processivity during the machine's operation (reminiscent of the way that subunits of the ribosome clamp the mRNA strand) and bears a catalyst--a tethered thiol group--that detaches the amino acid building blocks from the strand and passes them on to another site at which the resulting peptide oligomer is elongated in a single specific sequence, through chemistry related to nonribosomal peptide synthesis.
This is a truly remarkable feat, even though the authors admit that their machine "is a (very) primitive analog of the ribosome." They believe the employment of design principles will lead to even more intelligent design:
The principles employed in the design and operation of [the machine] should be broadly applicable to other types of monomer and chemical reactions.
Since chemical reactions do not apply design principles, they are speaking to their colleagues in the nanotech industry, not to the chemicals in the test tube. They are saying in effect, "Hey, guys: follow our lead and see if you can best us with your next design!"

Reading these articles, how can anyone believe that the natural ribosome was the result of a random accumulation of parts assembled by a purposeless, aimless process of natural selection? If it took some of the best engineering minds in the world today to formulate design principles for the manufacture, arrangement, and operation of functional machinery that imitates natural machines in a primitive manner, this suggests an argument a fortiori, from the lesser to the greater. If the primitive artificial machine is designed, the superior natural machine, logically, is even better designed.

It's interesting to see the reactions in the comments from PhysOrg's coverage of the first story. A reader named kevinrts applied the a fortiori argument:

OK, now that people are beginning to realize just how difficult it is to built and control things at such a small scale, it is time for evolutionists to meet reality. ATP synthase is an essential component for most of life bearing organisms. Without it the organism would have no energy to perform ANY other process. ATP synthase also just happens to be the most efficient motor known. PLUS, it is driven not by electrons but by protons. There is just no way for this astonishing nanoscale machine to have been assembled by purely random physical processes. The vibrational, torsional and chemical problems at that scale are just too great -- exactly as the current designers have found out to their chagrin. Ask them why it is that they have to experiment at such low temperatures, then compare that to ATP synthase. Have fun trying to explain the existence of this miraculous machine that exists by the billions at body temperature.
So did his opponent, calling himself "RealScience," use logic and evidence to respond? At first, he tried to claim that natural selection is not random. Evolution "was driven by non-random selection as well as quasi-random mutation." Here, RealScience shows he doesn't understand Darwinism. The essence of Darwinian evolution lies in its exclusion of purpose, direction or goal.

Having failed to understand evolution, he goes on the attack in typical -- which is to say ad hominem -- Darwinian fashion.

I see that you are still preaching non-science on a science web site. That is disrespectful! Your religion is none of my business, but if scientists don't preach science on your religious web sites, please return the favor and keep your non-science of off our site. And I see that you are still using a computer, a device based on discoveries made by the same science methods that support evolution. That's hypocritical! Most religious people are fine, as are most scientists. So who died and made you a disrespectful hypocrite?
Need one say more?