Nylon-eating bacteria and creationism
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The discovery of nylon-eating bacteria has been used by critics of creationism and intelligent design, in both print articles and on websites, to challenge creationist claims. These bacteria can produce novel enzymes that allow them to feed on by-products of nylon manufacture which did not exist prior to the invention of nylon in the 1930s. Critics of creationism have argued that this contradicts creationist claims that no new information can be added to a genome by mutation, and that proteins are too complex to evolve through a process of mutation and natural selection. Creationists have posted responses to these challenges on their own websites, which have in turn generated more responses from their critics.
Critics of creationism
The issue was first raised by critics of creationism such as the National Center for Science Education, and New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR) who stated that research refutes claims made by creationists and intelligent design proponents. The claims were that random mutation and natural selection can never add new information to a genome and that the odds against a useful new protein, such as an enzyme, arising through a process of random mutation would be prohibitively high.
Physicist Dave Thomas, the President of NMSR, has stated that gene duplication and frame-shift mutations were powerful sources of random mutation. In particular, in response to comments by creationists such as Don Batten, NMSR has stated that it was these mutations that gave rise to nylonase, even if the genes were part of a plasmid as suggested by Batten.
Proponents of creationism, such as Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International, have cited analyses posted by Don Batten that cited scientific research that showed the genes involved were on a plasmid, and stated that the phenomenon is evidence that plasmids in bacteria are a designed feature intended to allow bacteria to adapt easily to new food sources or cope with toxic chemicals. Batten stated
It seems clear that plasmids are designed features of bacteria that enable adaptation to new food sources or the degradation of toxins. The details of just how they do this remains to be elucidated. The results so far clearly suggest that these adaptations did not come about by chance mutations, but by some designed mechanism.
Opponents of creationism have dismissed Batten's analysis. NMSR has stated that the gene duplication and frame-shift mutations that gave rise to nylonase were powerful sources of random mutation, whether or not the genes were part of a plasmid as suggested by Batten. A posting at TalkOrigins Archive by Ian Musgrave states that bacteria carry many genes in plasmids, particularly those involved in xenobiotic handling or metabolic functions. He states that in Pseudomonas, most of the xenobiotic degradation genes are on plasmids. Therefore it is entirely likely that a xenobiotic handling enzyme will arise from mutations of xenobiotic handling genes. The fact that these genes are on plasmids does not invalidate the fact that they exist, and exist only in two strains of bacteria. Musgrave also criticized Batten for mis-stating the conclusions of some of the authors of the scientific literature on nylon eating bacteria.
MSNBC published an editorial from science writer Ker Than that stated that the evolution of the enzymes, known as nylonase, produced by nylon-eating bacteria was a compelling argument against the claim made by intelligent design proponents that specified complexity required an intelligent designer, since nylonase function was both specified and complex. The intelligent design proponent William Dembski posted a response that questioned whether the genetic changes that produced nylonase were complex enough to be considered specified complexity. Ken Miller said that intelligent design proponents claim that we can't see either design or evolution taking place and that therefore, according to the design proponents, intelligent design and evolution are both just matters of faith or world view. However, Miller said, the evolution of the enzyme nylonase, which scientists were able to repeat in the lab with another strain of bacteria, is one of a number of cases that show that evolution can be observed as it occurs.
- Kinoshita, S., Kageyama, S., Iba, K., Yamada, Y. and Okada, H. Utilization of a cyclic dimer and linear oligomers of ε-aminocapronoic acid by Achromobacter guttatus K172, Agric. Biol. Chem. 116, 547-551 (1981), FEBS 1981
- New Proteins Without God's Help – William M. Thwaites
- Evolution and Information: The Nylon Bug
- Claim CB101_2
- Dave Thomas's New Mexicans for Science and Reason article about nylon eating bacteria
- update to New Mexicans for Science and Reason website.
- Don Batten "The adaptation of bacteria to feeding on nylon waste" Creation Ministries International
- Musgrave, Ian Nylonase Enzymes, TalkOrigins Archive Post of the Month, April 2004
- Why scientists dismiss 'intelligent design', Ker Than, MSNBC, Sept. 23, 2005
- Why Scientists Should NOT Dismiss Intelligent Design by William Dembski
- Miller, Kenneth R. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul (2008) pp. 80-82