by Ian Laxton
“A moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, for the first time, something that is very important to you.”
The third floor of the Biochemistry Block at Wits University was perhaps the most unlikely place for a life-altering realisation – an epiphany – to occur. The lecture room was small, poorly furnished and bleak. The lecturer, Doctor James Shepherd, a short, somewhat dour Scotsman with a beard, was functional as a teacher, but pretty uninspiring as a role model. Most of the class was dozing through the dead-end “just after lunch” lecture period.
So what happened to make this a memorable, even historic, day for me?
Ribonucleic Acid happened.
RNA is a bit like Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike – related to, but not quite, the rock star. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the undoubted superstar of the biological universe. It’s in the Human Genome Project, in TV mysteries, in court cases, in crime fiction and a hundred other places in popular culture. You can even have your DNA decoded to see where your ancestors came from. DNA, of course, carries the genetic code for almost all living things. It dictates who we are, what we look like and how we behave. Everyone has heard of it. Few understand it.
In its cellular home, DNA exists in its famous “double helix” three-dimensional structure. Similar in structure, but much smaller in size, DNA’s cousin, RNA, prowls around inside the cell, coiling back on itself, twisting and turning according to the demands of its partner. Indeed, the three-dimensional geometry of these molecules is almost as important as their chemical structure.
In fact, without RNA, DNA would be dead in the water. RNA works alongside its more famous cousin to enable and facilitate protein synthesis and other key cellular functions. DNA and RNA are the Romeo and Juliet, the Tom and Jerry, the Batman and Robin of the biological world. A unique partnership that, as you read this right now, is powering the several billion microscopic work-stations that are the cells in your body.
I knew all that going into my lecture on the third floor that day. What I did not know, and what soon became evident, was exactly how this DNA/RNA interaction worked down there in my cells.
Even in those (relatively early) days of molecular biology, the mechanisms of action of numerous biological pathways were well understood. It was all Biochemistry 101.
But nothing I had previously encountered rivalled the DNA/RNA cellular dance and its otherworldly complexity and beauty. The various steps these molecules had to follow to, for instance, initiate the synthesis of a particular protein, were amazingly intricate.
It is not necessary to become wildly technical about what is going on down there in the micro-world of the cell to grasp the impact it had on me. Even a cursory “birds-eye view” will be enough.
DNA and RNA twist and turn, their helixes unwind, they link and decode each other, they pass on information to amino acids that join up to become proteins, they “switch on” and “switch off” and, when needed, call into action enzymes (biological catalysts) as partners.
The process down there in the engine-room of the cell is incredibly complex. To create a single protein, DNA and RNA, together with specific enzymes, perform their elaborate dance of coupling and decoupling, coding and decoding, joining and separating, switching on and switching off – a specific process for a specific protein.
And remember that the human body contains somewhere around 50 000 different proteins, give or take.
The biochem-3 class was dismissed. I sat there for a while, pondering this question: how on earth did this all happen? How could such an amazing system of cellular protein-creation come into being? Who was choreographing this dance?
Was it sheer chance, the accidental collision of molecules, some random event way back a billion years ago, that first kick-started a process that eventually became the very foundation of life on our planet? Or was there something more?
Thinking about this, I was reminded of the interesting and rather amusing notion that, “with enough time, enough monkeys and enough typewriters, one of them will eventually write Hamlet.”
Given enough time – 4 billion years – could this DNA/RNA process have happened by accident?
In a great flash of realization – an epiphany – my mind was opened to the fact that the answer to that question was an emphatic NO!
It simply could not have happened by chance. Never, not in 40 billion, 400 billion years.
But why not? Where, then, did this amazing DNA/RNA system come from?
When faced with a difficult question, the best route is to choose the most obvious answer, in this case…
… it was DESIGNED.
Of course it was.
Years later, I know, without any doubt, that the actions of RNA and DNA in our cells is just another proof of the existence of God, the designer, the creator of the universe, from mega galaxies millions light years across down to the tiniest cellular components.
Your DNA and my DNA, our cells, our RNA, our beautiful molecular biochemistry. God designed and created it.
Because he saw that is was beautiful.
And because he loves us.