31 July 2011

Evolution cheats, or how to get an old enzyme to do new tricks

ResearchBlogging.orgIt is of course a cliche to state that eukaryotic cells (i.e., cells that are not bacteria) are complex. In the case of an animal, tens of thousands of proteins engage in fantastically elaborate interactions that somehow coax a single cell into generating a unique and magnificent organism. These interactions are often portrayed as exquisitely precise, using metaphorical images such as 'lock-and-key' and employing diagrams that resemble subway maps.

Many of these interacting proteins are enzymes that modify other proteins, and many of those enzymes are of a particular type called kinases. Kinases do just one thing: they attach phosphate groups to other molecules. This kind of modification is centrally important in cell biology, and one way to tell is to look at how many kinases there are: the human genome contains about 500 kinase genes.

Now, kinases tend to be pretty picky about who they stick phosphate onto, and this specificity is known to involve the business end of the kinase, called the active site. The active site is (generally) the part of the kinase that physically interacts with the target and transfers the phosphate. You might think that this interaction, between kinase and target, through the active site, would be by far the most important factor in determining the specificity of kinase function. But that's probably not the case.

29 July 2011

Design and falsifiability

Last month I had an interesting conversation with Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute (DI), at Evolution News and Views (ENV), a DI blog/site that recently opened some articles to comments. The topic of the original post was common ancestry in humans and other primates, but Casey and I discussed various aspects of design thought.

One subject that came up was the falsifiability of design. I maintain that design arguments, whenever they also postulate the existence of an omnipotent deity (or any super-powerful being, for that matter), are inherently unfalsifiable. And I want some feedback on my argument.

25 July 2011

Conversing with Casey Luskin

Last month I wandered over to Evolution News and Views (ENV), a Discovery Institute (DI) blog, and read a piece by Casey Luskin on the topic of human/chimp common ancestry. I saw some stuff I didn't like, and left a comment, and an interesting exchange ensued. You can read it yourself, but here are some of my comments.

22 July 2011

Genetics, evolution, and sexual orientation: the gay extinction hypothesis

Three weeks ago, I went to the Cornerstone Music Festival with my two oldest kids. For the second year, I was an invited speaker in the festival's excellent seminar program. This year, my two series were entitled "Alien Worlds" and "Zombies on Jeopardy" – exploring extreme biology and human nature, respectively. It was fun, if a little too hot for a day or so.

At one point, I was discussing human intelligence and its genetic underpinnings. And I got a loaded question, paraphrased thus: "What happens when you substitute 'sexual orientation' for intelligence? Is homosexuality 'genetic' and if so, what does that mean for Christian views of sexuality?" (The Cornerstone Festival is a Christian music festival, known for embracing music at the 'fringes' while remaining consistent with most mainstream evangelical sensibilities, including a typically evangelical view of homosexuality.) I answered that sexual orientation also has a fairly significant heritable component, meaning that some of the variation in sexual orientation is accounted for by genetics. Then I got a followup question/comment, delivered with intriguing smugness, and paraphrased as follows: "Homosexuality can't be genetic, because homosexuals don't have kids and so the trait will be eliminated from the population." Without going into the complexity of sexual orientation as a biological phenomenon, I will critique this person's claim, since I hear it from Christians with disheartening frequency.