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Changes in the Genetic Code of Life?

By C. S. Davis
May 28, 2014

It has long been presumed that the genetic code was universal.  There are rare documented exceptions, but by and large the genetic code used by a fruit fly is the same for creatures as diverse as dandelions and baboons. But just when we think we understand it, there is a new study that throws everything upside down. Now researchers have found some new
 exceptions to the universality of the genetic code in some forms of microbial life.

Genetic Code of LifeThe genetic code of life on Earth.

The genetic code is so universal that it is quite hard to imagine life without the same 20 amino acids and 64 codons (3 letter words in the genetic code). Of these codons, three are used as stop signals for marking the end of the protein's build sequence, and the other 61 codons are each assigned one of the amino acids as shown in the table to the right. The fact that all life uses this same code is amazing when you consider that there are hundreds of natural amino acids, yet only twenty are used by life. Then you consider that the code itself is quite arbirary, like words in a language. Yet all life has the same instruction set.

Because the code is the same, you can splice genes from one organism and transplant them in another. This has allowed scientists to take the gene that makes a firefly glow and insert it into a tabacco plant. The plants micro-machinery reads the inserted DNA and interprets it just as it would any of its own. It then constructs the protein successfully, yielding a tabacco plant that glows in the dark. This kind of cross-species genetics opens the door for using bacteria to produce useful chemicals and drugs, which is now commonplace. It is truly fascenating that the programming language of life is so modular, allowing sub-routines from different programs to be interchanged at will.

The new exceptions to the standard genetic code.

The researchers studied microbial populations from many hard to reach and extreme environments around the world. The supprise was that a codon that codes as stop command, in some instances, instead coded for an amino acid. Some of these code changes allowed a parasite to evade the host organism's defenses or had some other advantagous function. This new developement leads to some remarkable conclusions.

Impact on questions into the origin of life.

When theorists consider how life emerged and how the genetic code emerged, they reason that the genetic code must have evolved from a simplier form. This new finding shows variation in the genetic code, but only as a single modification to the interpretation of one codon in the code at a time. One would expect that many forms of the genetic code should have developed, having widely different coding, if indeed the genetic code evolved from a simpler form. Especially given that variation in the code is now shown to be possible.

But this is not the case. Here we have a single original code in full complexity, that subsequently has been altered by mutation in a few species. This does not look like an origin of life story stemming from some form of chemical evolution on non-living material.  This looks more like origin by design, where the genetic code of life is programmed into life by God. Then after billions of years, some rare mutations (to the genetic code) have been retained because in those unique instances it provided an advantage.

I am not suggesting that this puts any new limits on evolution, though one could explore that. The main evidence here is that the origin of the genetic code looks more like it was designed than originating by chance. And that is a big deal. P
opular figures who trumpet the atheist agenda have so often proclaimed, "The success of evolution means there is no need for God to explain our existence." But evolution cannot work without life or the genetic machinery of life. There is no explanation for this magnificent machinery outside of design by God. Evolution needs life, life needs an origin, and that origin needs God. So even evolution would require a creator for it to work.

Evidence for evolution cannot be equated with evidence for atheism. In so many ways, evidence for evolution is often evidence for God, not atheism. Here, the commonality of the genetic code that has been used as evidence for common descent, is also evidence for beening designed by God. The fossil record shows a progression of lifeforms as expected from evolution, but also matches the order of creation in the Genesis creation account. (See our
Creation Timeline.)

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posted May 28, 2014
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