Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Lamprey: A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma

Francis Collins recently rebuked skeptics for thinking evolutionists are protectionists. Sure, evolution is a paradigm, President Obama's nominee to lead the National Institutes of Health agreed. "But one of our goals," Collins explained, "is to upset these paradigms."

OK, how about the humble Lamprey? Long known as a "living fossil," the lamprey is an extant species that also shows up in fossil records dated at hundreds of millions of years old. It is not a very good example of evolution. Now the lamprey gives evolution another jolt: it rewrites its own genetic code during its lifetime.

Like the self-modifying code that software engineers sometimes use, the Lamprey restructures its DNA instructions during its early embryonic stages of development. Furthermore, the germline cells (sperm and egg cells) that later develop somehow retain the original instructions, which are then passed on to the offspring.

It is an astonishing capability and, needless to say, leaves evolution looking rather silly. As one science writer put it, "The scientists don't know how this happens, or why." But of course they do know that it evolved. After all, that's a fact.

One evolutionist thinks that perhaps the initial genome plays a role in the creation of germline precursor cells. Then, once these cells are established, the DNA is restructured to suit the future needs of the organism.

So let's see, hundreds of millions of years ago in the early stages of the evolutionary drama, when species rapidly appeared with designs as sophisticated as today's species, some unguided mutations just happened to occur that just happened to cause a dramatic self-modifying DNA capability that just happened to work really well. Now I see why evolution is such a powerful theory. As one evolutionist explained:

We don't really know where this discovery about the sea lamprey's remodeling of its genome will take us. It's common in science for the implications of a finding not to be realized for several decades. It's less about connecting the dots to a specific application, and more about obtaining a broad understanding of how living things are put together.

Obviously the fact of evolution plays a key role in life science discoveries such as this. Where would we be without it?