Friday, August 12, 2011

Marvels of the Monarch

Before putting the monarch butterfly discussion to rest for the summer, consider how we may communicate the marvels of the monarch to a young person in a gripping way. We may observe the tiny egg hatch into a tiny caterpillar, grow into a large caterpillar, morph into a gold be-jeweled chrysalis, and finally hatch into the adult end product--the magnificent orange and black aeronaut with its mysterious navigational capability. Young people may say, “That’s awesome!” A few may wonder, “How does that happen?” In the world of living things around us, there are thousands of events capable of triggering that question: How does it happen?

The monarch, with its four-stage metamorphosis, is high on the list of fascinating, wonder-provoking creatures. Its life cycle and migratory capability place in it a league by itself. But we must keep in mind that the progression of events in its body building process occurs in all living creatures, to one degree or another.

When the adult monarch places its tiny egg beneath a milkweed leaf, it deposits a complete program of instructions for fabricating a complex, functioning organism. The phrase complex, functioning organism does not even begin to reveal its physical beauty and capability. The monarch’s DNA contains a multi-million digit genetic code which directs the building of thousands of proteins, strings of amino acids which fold into specific shapes. These shapes are critical in governing the animal’s appearance and function.

An object lesson may help us understand. Resting in our family game closet is a 1500-piece jigsaw puzzle picturing a Bavarian castle. Each puzzle piece is uniquely shaped, fitting in only one specific position with respect to other puzzle pieces. Only one arrangement of pieces successfully completes the puzzle. If any pieces are misplaced or missing, puzzle enthusiasts judge the project to be a failure. But when all 1500 pieces are correctly assembled, the complete Bavarian castle comes into view.

Who designed the Bavarian castle puzzle? The image was clearly selected for its aesthetic beauty. The cut of the puzzle pieces resulted from the deliberate, intellectual process of the designer and manufacturing technologists. The pieces were precisely shaped to fit with each other perfectly and they must all be sequenced properly to result in a successful image.

In biology, this necessary, precise order of any organism’s thousands of different proteins forming functional structures is termed specificity of sequence. The adult monarch, not to mention the chrysalis, caterpillar, and egg stage, is composed of many thousands of different successfully assembled proteins--strips of amino acids strung together and folded into precise three-dimensional shapes. They match up with other specially shaped proteins to produce functional structures. Both shape and sequence of proteins, therefore, must be exactly correct in order to successfully produce an adult monarch butterfly. Success manifests itself in correct color, pattern, structure, and function of its wing, length and thickness of its antennae, anatomical features of its digestive system, and its intrinsic capability to sense environmental factors guiding the insect to a special Mexican forest, to list only a few examples.

At what age could a child begin to understand? Depending on the child’s age, the parent or teacher could use a 30-piece jigsaw puzzle to illustrate. Perhaps the child could understand that paintings of Bavarian castles do not assemble themselves. Children’s usually futile efforts to capture butterflies may help them contemplate their visual ability and knack for avoiding danger. Some children may be able to infer the absurdity of all these features and events “just happening by accident.” Jesus Christ, who healed sick folks and rose from the dead, is able to create a monarch butterfly and the multiple other wonders surrounding us. This is one of the most important lessons our children could ever learn.