Message of the Molecules

MAN'S existence is inseparable from matter. The inner drive to explore his environment quite naturally leads him to a study of the material world. Besides satisfying his innate curiosity, the Christian has at least two additional reasons for such a pursuit. First, he may learn more about his Creator. "Upon every page of the great volume of His created works may still be traced His handwriting. Nature still speaks of her Creator. . ."

Associate Professor of chemistry at Andrews University at the time this article was written

MAN'S existence is inseparable from matter. The inner drive to explore his environment quite naturally leads him to a study of the material world. Besides satisfying his innate curiosity, the Christian has at least two additional reasons for such a pursuit. First, he may learn more about his Creator. "Upon every page of the great volume of His created works may still be traced His handwriting. Nature still speaks of her Creator." --Education, p. 17. The second reason stems from the fact that the traditional teachings of the church have been challenged most effectively by students of nature. Much of the currently prevailing materialistic philosophy is the result of wholesale acceptance of the theory of evolution. This theory not only presumes to explain man's origins but also to predict his destiny. Without the possession of facts about nature, one is forced to accept someone else's interpretations of them. Although the scientist observes natural phenomena usually without bias, the interpretation of them reflects his individual preferences.

The chemist is trained to look at the material world from a certain perspective. In the following para graphs this perspective will be introduced and used to describe some structural features of living matter. Finally, some answers will be given to the question of what such a perspective teaches about God.

Let us consider some aspects of our material world. Although we encounter a practically infinite variety of substances, it appears that all known matter is composed of a single ingredient or a combination of several ingredients called elements. There are about ninety naturally occurring elements. Carbon, copper, gold, hydrogen, iron, nitrogen, and oxygen are a few of them.

The Atom

Ancient Greek philosophers speculating on the nature of matter about 500 B.C. decided that it must be made up of very small invisible particles that cannot be cut to smaller pieces. They named these particles atomas, meaning "not cut." Modern science has confirmed this notion with some modifications. Today we are certain that an atom is the smallest possible unit of a given element. However, different elements are made up of different atoms. There are as many different types of atoms as there are elements. Atoms are incredibly small. For instance, about half an ounce of gold contains enough gold atoms to supply at least ten thousand billion of them to every man, woman, and child living on the earth. Only within the past few years have atoms actually been seen under the scanning-beam electron microscope. The word atom is somewhat of a misnomer, because atoms can be broken down further to a number of different types of fundamental subatomic particles. These particles are the same, no matter from what kind of atom they originate. In fact, the difference between the various types of atoms lies solely in the distribution of these fundamental subatomic particles within them.

Different atoms may join one another by what is termed chemical bonds to form permanent groups, known as molecules. Most known matter is made up not of pure elements but combinations of them, called compounds. Compounds contain elements in a fixed proportion. Just as the atom is the smallest unit of an element, molecules ---combinations of atoms---are the smallest units of compounds.

Knowledge of the properties of the individual elements is frequently insufficient to predict the characteristics of the compound resulting from their combination. For instance, when two atoms of the gaseous element hydrogen combine with one atom of another element also gaseous at room temperature, oxygen, unexpectedly a liquid results. A molecule of water containing two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom is among the smallest molecules.

There is no limit to the number of possible combinations of atoms and thus to the kinds of molecules that can possibly exist. However, the number and the types of atoms that join to form molecules are strictly governed by the properties of the atoms themselves. Hundreds or even thousands of atoms may join to form one molecule. Large molecules macromolecules be came objects of intensive study when it was realized that much of living matter is composed of these.

Evolution and the Atom

It has been found that combinations of only six elements make up 99 percent of living tissue. These elements in order of their importance are: oxygen, carbon, hydro gen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium. Because the theory of evolution calls for a random assemblage of atoms from the earth's crust to form living structures, it is of interest to note that the natural abundance of five out of the six elements in the earth's crust is only about 3.5 percent. Thus, living matter is not composed of elements most readily available on our earth on a random basis. (Moreover, the element silicone, which represents in natural abundance one quarter of all the elements in the earth's crust and comes the closest of all the elements to carbon in proper ties, is not found in living matter to any significant degree.)

Thus, the large molecules found in living matter are composed of relatively few elements. These macromolecules are divided into four classes, based on certain structural similarities among the molecules of each group. The four classes are proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, and lipids. These large molecules are responsible for most of the life functions on the cellular level. Within each class hundreds or even thousands of different types of macromolecules are in existence.

The cell is the basic unit of living matter. The simplest of cells may contain four or five thousand different types of macromolecules. The absence of even a single type of macromolecule could cause the death of the unit. These macromolecules are not floating around at random within the cell; instead, most of them are organized into larger structures, called organelles. The number and kinds of organelles vary with the complexity of the cell type. Wholesale breakdown of organelles to their macromolecular components will also stop life functions even though all the necessary macromolecules may still be present.

The Complex Functions of Proteins

Of the macromolecules, proteins fill the most important position within the cell. Almost all chemical conversions taking place within the cell are promoted by enzymes, biological catalysts consisting largely of proteins. Many of the chemical reactions taking place in the cell are repeatable in the test tube. However, without the presence of enzymes, a given reaction may take hundreds or even thousands of times as long to be completed.

There is no accurate answer available on how enzymes perform their work of catalysis. Three-dimensional structures of several enzymes are now known to the last atom, but their workings still present a mystery. Some proteins function as regulators of life processes (hormones); others, as carriers of smaller molecules; blood albumin transports metals, and blood hemoglobin transports oxygen. Much of skin, bone, hair, and muscle is protein. This class of macromolecules is made up by the joining of hundreds of small com pounds called amino acids. Proteins are composed from twenty different kinds of amino acids. The order of attachment of these amino acids to one another determines the characteristic properties of proteins. Some organisms can synthesize all twenty of their amino acids. Humans, on the other hand, manufacture only twelve out of twenty of these building blocks of protein. The other eight are the "essential" amino acids. One has to eat pre-existing proteins in order to obtain them for growth and body repair.

Nucleic acids are the second most important type of macromolecules found in all living cells. These structures contain the genetic information of the organism. It is currently believed that the structure of one kind of nucleic acid, abbreviated DNA (for deoxyribonucleic acid), contains the information to manufacture all the necessary protein molecules (i.e., to link up the hundreds of amino acids in the correct sequence for each different type of protein). Once all the necessary protein molecules are made, they determine what other types of molecules will be produced. Although this is an oversimplification, it is our current level of understanding of the direction of the flow of genetic information.

Polysaccharides and lipids, the other two major classes of macromolecules, are assigned roles of structural support within the cell. Furthermore, excess available energy is stored mostly in the form of these two classes of molecules.

Not Without Purpose or Designer

In a live cell thousands of separate chemical conversions take place nearly simultaneously. None occur without a purpose, but on the contrary one reaction often depends on the successful completion of another. The over-all patterns of chemical transformation are delicately balanced. Be cause of the complex nature of the cell, it makes no sense to talk about living molecules or even organelles. Nothing less than a cell can be truly alive.

Nearly all cellular material exhibits turnover. Large molecules constituting the various cellular structures are periodically broken down and resynthesized. The cell also has several repair mechanisms that correct or replace malfunctioning macromolecules.

There is considerable versatility built into all cells. If a certain metabolic pathway becomes inoperative for a variety of reasons, an alternate sequence of chemical conversions begins to achieve identical ends. Each cell is thus capable of functioning under a great variety of circumstances.

The Designer of the cell organized the simplest building blocks into a system of unfathomable complexity. The degree of detailed care displayed inside the cell is simply beyond the comprehension of the most knowledgeable scientist. In fact, a lifetime of study by a scientist is scarcely enough to graze the surface of a given problem connected with a single aspect of cell study. Moreover, the increase of available information about the workings of the cell has multiplied the number of pressing questions about it. Along with the growth in knowledge, the extent of our ignorance also has increased.

Everything known about the molecular workings of the cell is in harmony with the thought that herein too the handwriting of our Creator may be seen. His dynamic and benevolent character is amply displayed by the turnover of molecules and system of alternate metabolic pathways. The God of order can be discerned in the harmonious functioning of many subsystems within the cell. The God of infinity is sensed when it is understood that the Creator and Upholder of billions of galaxies is also the Designer of the tiniest molecule.

"Worship Him That Made . . ."

Is it a coincidence that the in crease in knowledge about the molecular events of life comes to mankind at the time of the end? The last warning message to mankind is a call to worship the Creator: "Fear God, and give glory to Him . . . : and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters" (Rev. 14:7).

The student of molecular biology has been permitted to come to the shores of a vast ocean of complex realities as the result of the great discoveries of the past few decades. It seems that God pulled back the curtains that had hid from mankind the workings of nature for millenniums. He appears to be saying: "See for yourself. Judge. Could all this come about by itself? If you cannot see a design and a Designer in all this, what can I do to convince you?"

"I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil" (Jer. 29:11). "This is the message that, in the light from the cross, may be read upon all the face of nature. The heavens declare His glory, and the earth is full of His riches." --Education, p. 101.

"From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love." --The Great Controversy, p. 678.

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Associate Professor of chemistry at Andrews University at the time this article was written

January 1973

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