THE LAWS INVOLVED IN THE OPERATION OF CELLS ARE UNKNOWN TO MODERN CHEMISTRY by T. D. Singh, Ph.D.)
Until the early part of the nineteenth century, chemists thought that what- ever happened in a living system could not be reproduced in the laboratory. In other words, Inorganic matter was thought to be fundamentally different from the organic matter composing living material bodies. The prevailing view was that a non-physical vital energy was operating in the living system. In 1828, however, the German chemist Friedrich Wohler announced the laboratory synthesis of urea from ammonium cyanate, an inorganic compound. Urea is an end organic byproduct forming the major solid component of mammalian urine. Wohler’s synthesis of urea profoundly influenced the minds of chemists toward adopting a materialistic view of life. By the late 1850s, Pierre Berthelot reported the production of such organic compounds as alcohols, acetylene, methane and benzene from inorganic chemicals. Gradually, chemists began to think that there was nothing unusual about the organic world.
Thus, a strong conceptual path was paved for the view that life could be a product of a long, tedious and complex series of chemical reactions. The announcement of Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1859 lent further support to the wholesale materialistic and mechanical concept that life could be an emergent product of matter, a concept that has since remained dominant in both science and philosophy. The author would like to remind the readers that although Darwin’s theory of evolution is about one and a half centuries old, scientists are not making much headway in their attempts to understand the chemical basis of life. We now know a lot more about protein molecules, the chemistry of genes, and many other biochemical paths in the living bodies. However, we are still quite far from understanding life. Rather the scientific study of life for a century and a half indicates that life is beyond protein molecules, beyond DNA and RNA. And a mixture of these molecules cannot produce life. Life is beyond.
Furthermore, it could be said that chemicals either organic or inorganic would not produce life. In fact, living bodies on earth are made up of both organic chemicals such as carbon compounds and inorganic chemicals of Na+, K+, Mg++, Fe+++ ions – although the inorganic chemicals are in minor amounts. Everyone will agree that it will never be possible to revive a dead body where all the organic and inorganic chemicals are still present, thus showing that there is the divine hand of a Supreme Being or God. All the religious traditions of the world strongly hold that God exists and that life is created by God. This paradigm cannot be demolished.
Thus, there are only two paradigms for the study of life and its origin: one is the theistic and divine paradigm contained in the religious scriptures of the world, and the other is the atheistic and materialistic paradigm such as theories of spontaneous generation of life – Darwinism, neo-Darwinism theories, chemical evolution and the Big Bang theory.
The very fact that life exists is a proof of the existence of God. In the theistic paradigm, life and matter are created by God only. In other words, God is the origin of both life and matter. In the atheistic view, the Big Bang theory is the origin of matter, and life is an emergent property of matter. What is the difference between God and Big Bang? The model that God exists acknowledges that there are many things beyond human comprehension. Therefore, the acknowledgement of a primeval intelligent source, above which there could exist no other, will be the definition of God. According to Srimad-bhagavatam, the complete theistic treatise of the ancient Vedic literatures, there are three aspects of God. One aspect of God is called Paramatma, which is an expansion of God Who guides every living being. And life, which in Sanskrit language is called jivatma is a spiritual particle of Paramatma.
About one and a half centuries have passed since Wohler’s synthesis of urea, and indeed organic chemistry has advanced tremendously since that time. Synthetic fibers, synthetic rubber, synthetic dyes, chemotherapeutic agents, synthetic pesticides, synthetic glass, synthetic metals and synthetic liquid crystals are some of the major products of synthetic organic chemistry. Similarly, during the last fifty years or so, many advances have been made in the fields of cell biology and molecular biology.
Chemists and biochemists have identified many chemicals such as lipids, proteins, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ribonucleic acid (RNA), hormones and co-enzymes inside the cells constituting living material bodies. Many scientists believe that the DNA molecule holds the ultimate key to life. It is their genuine hope that once this DNA molecule, the so called master molecule, is assembled step by step from its constituent atomic elements - carbon (C), hydrogen (H), nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), and phosphorus (P) – their goal of synthesizing life in the test tube will be achieved. This will finally prove that life is, after all, nothing but a complex system of chemicals. Now we know the DNA molecule and the mapping of the human genome is done. But have we known life? Is DNA life?
We would like to argue that no matter how complex they may be, all molecules or collections of molecules, including DNA and RNA, are simply dead matter. What scientists know and agree upon is that the majority of the molecules playing vital roles in living systems are extremely complex. This much is correct. We question only their further conclusion that if complex molecules can some- how be made from simple molecules (for example, proteins from amino adds, and DNA from nucleotides) then life will arise from these complex molecules by virtue of their proper combinations.
Let us briefly examine the chemistry of the cellular DNA molecule. It consists of two intertwined strands of complementary structures forming a regular double helix.
1 From X ray crystallographic studies, the diameter of the helix is found to be approximately 20 Å, and each strand makes a complete turn every 34 Å (or every 10 nucleotides).
2 Strings made of alternate groups of phosphate and sugar (deoxyribose) form the backbone of the two strands. Each phosphate group links to deoxyribose, a five-carbon chain sugar. The sugar in turn links to one of two possible bases of purine (guanine or adenine) or two possible bases of pyrimidine (thymine or cytosine) through hydrogen bonds. Adenine (A) is always paired with thymine (T), and guanine (G) with cytosine (C), for conformational reasons and because of the donor acceptor natures of the hydrogen bonding groups.
As a stereochemical consequence of this strict base pairing, the two polynucleotide chains run in opposite directions. Although hydrogen bonding between other base pairs is possible, it leads to nucleotide pairs which have the wrong external geometry and do not fit into the regular double-helical structure.
This strict requirement of base pairing is responsible for the systematic replication process of DNA. Geneticists commonly assume that DNA is the carrier of the genetic information of the cell. It duplicates itself before cell division to provide each daughter cell with a complete set of DNA molecules. DNA replication involves each daughter cell with a complete set of DNA molecules. DNA replication involves strand separation, and each separated strand forms the template for the condensation of a complementary strand. This is commonly called the Watson-Crick mechanism.
Descriptions such as this of DNA and its replication mechanism are commonly given as though they have provided a complete description of the most fundamental processes of life - a final mechanical, step-by-step breakdown of these life processes into understandable chemical terms. However, this is far from true. An enormous gulf lies between the few simple chemical facts known about DNA and the actual functioning of a cell. All that science actually knows about DNA are a few relations between inanimate chemicals. The gap between this knowledge and an actual chemical understanding of life is bridged only by faith.
An enormous gulf lies between the few simple chemical facts known about DNA and the actual functioning of a cell.
Although we may imagine that the cell is nothing more than an elaborate chemical machine, we actually do not at all know how this machine works. We have no idea how the large scale actions of a cell (what to speak of a multicellular organism) can be reduced to the reactions of molecules. Indeed, we do not even fully understand the chemical interactions of water molecules; and the operations of enzymes composed of hundreds of amino acids are certainly a mystery.
The assumption that the cell is a machine running according to simple push-pull laws is, therefore, simply a matter of faith. It may be imagined that thousands of reactions of the form Ai + Bi –> Ci can combine to create an elaborate chemical automaton surpassing even the most sophisticated man-made computers. However, in contemplating this analogy we should consider that even the most detailed knowledge of the intricate functioning of a computer would be incomplete unless it entailed an understanding of the programmer. Similarly, it is quite possible, in the context of current knowledge, that other laws are involved in the operation of cells that are unknown to modern chemistry. The most that can be said at present is that the knowledge of the biochemists is a knowledge of chemical reactions; it cannot be claimed that it constitutes an understanding of life.
... it is quite possible ... that other laws are involved in the operation of cells that are unknown to modern chemistry.
1. Watson, J.D. and Crick, F. Nature, 171, 964 (1953).
2. Watson, J.D. Molecular Biology of the Gene, p. 261.
3. See, for instance, Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, The Free Press, New York, 1996.
4. See also author’s dialogue with Michael J. Behe: God, Intelligent Design and Fine-Tuning: A Dialogue between T. D. Singh and Michael J. Behe, Kolkata, 2005.
5. See also Denton, M. Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe, Free Press, 1998.