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Three More Codes in Nature to Decipher

The theory of intelligent design treats information as a fundamental property of the universe. By its nature, information implies communication. An entity only carries information if there are other entities that can read it and respond to it. Here are some new, unexpected sources of information that, when studied from an ID perspective, will likely yield new insights into the workings of life.

RNA Email

A news item from the University of California, San Francisco is entitled, "ExRNA: Decoding Messages Between Cells." The article relates how UCSF scientists have received part of a hefty $17 million NIH grant to study exRNA: extracellular RNA. We know, of course, that RNA is one of the key informational macromolecules within cells, involved in many roles such as transcription and translation of DNA. Recently, however, a new role has come to light: RNA as a carrier of information between cells in the body -- a kind of intercellular email:

RNA has long been known to perform yeoman's duty on the intracellular assembly line, following genetic instructions to help guide protein production.

But it turns out that RNA is not merely an essential and reliable, if unexciting, workhorse. Scientists have discovered a type of RNA that ventures beyond the cell, travels through the bloodstream and could play a vital role in facilitating communication with other cells. (Emphasis added.)

A short animated video clip by the NIH with the Illustra-like title, "Unlocking the Mysteries of Extracellular RNA Communication," speaks of the "enormous promise" and "transformative potential" of unlocking the "communication powers" of exRNAs. One UCSF professor remarks, "Extracellular RNA is the most recent, and one of the most surprising and potentially far-reaching elements of the RNA world to be uncovered over the past three or so decades."

The article mentions another possible role: exRNA as a communication medium not only for the LAN, but the WAN as well: "And it has been proposed that extracellular RNA not only travels between cells within a single individual, but that it also can travel between organisms - through digestion of foods, for example."

UCSF scientists are remaining neutral about these possibilities till other explanations are ruled out, but they "expect to discover novel paradigms for extracellular RNA function and common underlying themes across organs, in systems of organs working together, and in animal models."

Message in the Leak

In a PNAS paper, "Information transfer by leaky, heterogeneous, protein kinase signaling systems," scientists from the University of Bristol describe another unexpected communication mechanism used by cells: signal in the noise.

Cells must sense extracellular signals and transfer the information contained about their environment reliably to make appropriate decisions. To perform these tasks, cells use signal transduction networks that are subject to various sources of noise. Here, we study the effects on information transfer of two particular types of noise: basal (leaky) network activity and cell-to-cell variability in the componentry of the network. Basal activity is the propensity for activation of the network output in the absence of the signal of interest. We show, using theoretical models of protein kinase signaling, that the combined effect of the two types of noise makes information transfer by such networks highly vulnerable to the loss of negative feedback. In an experimental study of ERK signaling by single cells with heterogeneous ERK expression levels, we verify our theoretical prediction: In the presence of basal network activity, negative feedback substantially increases information transfer to the nucleus by both preventing a near-flat average response curve and reducing sensitivity to variation in substrate expression levels. The interplay between basal network activity, heterogeneity in network componentry, and feedback is thus critical for the effectiveness of protein kinase signaling. Basal activity is widespread in signaling systems under physiological conditions, has phenotypic consequences, and is often raised in disease. Our results reveal an important role for negative feedback mechanisms in protecting the information transfer function of saturable, heterogeneous cell signaling systems from basal activity.

In short, cells can find useful information in unexpected deviations from the norm. Even in an environment subject to two kinds of noise, they can find the signal to make "appropriate decisions." Notice that the expectation of information transfer (i.e., design) motivated these scientists to formulate and verify a theoretical prediction.

Symphony in Vibrations

Another unexpected source of information has been called "The Symphony of Life" in the title of a news story from the University at Buffalo (State University of New York). This information source is the ability of protein domains to vibrate as they interact, facilitating their binding and release.

As some had predicted, proteins vibrate. Unlike wet sponges, they ring like bells. Scientists at the university found, to their surprise, that the vibrations persist for some time. The team developed new imaging techniques to listen in on the music of the vibrating protein bells:

The team found that the vibrations, which were previously thought to dissipate quickly, actually persist in molecules like the "ringing of a bell," said UB physics professor Andrea Markelz, PhD, who led the study.

These tiny motions enable proteins to change shape quickly so they can readily bind to other proteins, a process that is necessary for the body to perform critical biological functions like absorbing oxygen, repairing cells and replicating DNA, Markelz said.

How does this relate to information? Vibration provides a kind of tactile sense used by proteins. Just as the blind can learn about their surroundings by touching and shaking objects, proteins (operating without eyes in the dark), verify the correct interactions through these vibrations. Markelz was thrilled:

"The cellular system is just amazing," she said. "You can think of a cell as a little machine that does lots of different things -- it senses, it makes more of itself, it reads and replicates DNA, and for all of these things to occur, proteins have to vibrate and interact with one another."

Conclusions

What have we got, then? Here are three new avenues of research well positioned for design-based science. None of the articles mentioned (or needed) evolutionary theory. Instead, they spoke of coding, signaling, and the machinery to communicate information.

These words are frequently found in the working vocabulary of intelligent design, illustrating once again that the expectation of design not only comports with the latest findings in biology, but motivates rapid progress in scientific understanding -- sometimes with the help of multimillion-dollar government grants.