Monday, August 30, 2021

Contemplating Genetic Variability

 Our previous post highlighted a unique animal—the eastern cicada killer wasp (phylum Arthropoda, order Hymenoptera, species Sphecius Speciosus). The post related some details of a recent family experience when our grandchildren encountered one of these wasps dragging its “kill” toward its underground burrow. It was an event to inspire admiration and respect from the grandfather and significant fear from some of the grandchildren. By coincidence, my pest service representative arrived a few days later for his regular visit to treat insect pests at our residence. Not knowing of our experience, he raised an unusual topic. Some of his customers a few doors away had just instructed him to “get rid of” cicada killer wasps inhabiting their property. This triggered a conversation and mutual agreement that generally, all wasps provide far more benefit than harm.

First-hand experience with neighborhood cicada killer wasps ignited other interesting discussions with friends. Some deeper discussions trended toward the genetic basis of morphology and unique behavior of these wasps. But what about the diversity of appearance and behavior in thousands of other species? Why do swarms of insects torment us in springtime? Or how does the last summer generation of beautiful Monarch butterflies know how to navigate to a tiny mountain forest site in southern Mexico? For observant, thoughtful, contemplative observers, morphology and behavior provide opportunities not only to describe, but also to explain the morphology and behavior of ALL living things in our neighborhood and on our planet. Description is easy; explanation is difficult! 

We discuss a few highlights of the wonders of genetics. Examples below come from human genetics but our discussion concerning DNA, RNA, chromosomes, genes, proteins, codes, and codons applies to ALL living species. Genetics is an important topic in biology. From this term comes the more familiar exclamation, “It’s in my genes,” a term relating to one’s physical appearance or innate functional and behavioral traits. The popular statement “It’s in my DNA” is a take-off on the same expression. In the last seven decades our populace has been apprised of important details concerning the structure and function of the DNA molecule, thanks to the landmark discoveries of scientists James Watson and Francis Crick in the mid-20th century. Since then our knowledge of genetics has expanded exponentially. 

Each of trillions of human cells in the human body contains 23 chromosome pairs located in the cell nucleus. Every chromosome is a “tightly wound” DNA molecule possessing numerous specific strands along its length. These key locations are termed genes—special segments of the magnificent DNA molecule. They are the ‘units of heredity’ on the DNA molecule. Why are they called units of heredity? Certain genes possess a “code” for the manufacture of proteins, the building blocks of one’s physical body. Protein building blocks are arranged in unique ways in each human body. We are able to observe living things as well as fellow human beings and make conclusions about their heredity. Their physical and behavioral characteristics were inherited, conferred to them from previous generations.              

Altogether, there are about 20,000 genes distributed along human DNA molecules on 23 chromosome pairs. Lower numbered, larger chromosomes have more genes—specific segments of the entire DNA sequence of base pairs. For example, chromosome 1 has 2058 genes which “code for proteins.” Chromosome 22 has only 488 protein coding genes. In short, the protein coding mechanism relates to the sequence of chemical compounds (bases) arranged linearly on DNA and RNA molecules. A great majority of genes do not code for proteins, but they have many other important functions in living things. 

DNA is found in the nucleus of almost all body cells. The DNA molecule must be transcribed to a similar chemical molecule called RNA and is re-located outside the nucleus in the cell’s cytoplasm. In cytoplasm the work of synthesizing and manufacturing proteins is accomplished. The sequence of four chemical bases on the strand of the RNA molecule (A, G, C, and U) may occur in many different ways. In the wisdom of the Creator, any three of these could occur randomly in any order just by chance. In God’s creative wisdom, however, twenty special combinations of three chemical bases code for each of twenty known amino acids, components of all proteins on Planet Earth. The combinations of three chemical bases are known as codons. The coding process is always the product of an intelligent mind.   

The human body’s “building blocks” are really ‘proteins,’ sometimes lengthy chains of amino acids assembled in the cell’s cytoplasm from unique combinations of twenty amino acids. An array of protein building blocks is specific to each human on Earth. No two human beings are identical in appearance. (The exception is identical twins who share identical genetic traits.) Thousands of different proteins comprise each human body assembled in unique ways. Various estimates of the number of different proteins existing on our planet range far beyond one million. Humans possess tens of thousands of different proteins.

Our post has discussed only two living creatures—cicada killer wasps and humans! There are up to ten million separate species of living things on Planet Earth. The Creator of ALL Things has used the same template of life to create ALL living things.

We close with verses from Psalms which could apply to the wonder of living things “great and small,” from giant animals to humans to wasps to even tinier creatures. Only one of these living things is created imago dei (made in God’s image). We alone can learn and contemplate the beauty of God’s creative power and ability.

I praise you because I m fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well…..How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. (Psalm 139:14, 17-18 NIV)    










Wednesday, August 18, 2021

"Bugged" by Cicada Killers?

 One source of joy and fascination for grandparents consists of sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with grandchildren. Knowledge and enthusiasm take diverse forms. Likewise, the abilities and interests of our grandchildren are also diverse. The challenge for grandparents is how to blend their personal abilities and interests with those of grandchildren. 

Your author’s profession as teacher of science in public school has provided some advantages while interacting with grandchildren. He was able to take advantage of “The Science Wow Factor” to fascinate his grands when they visited. His challenge was to avoid overkill, permitting young children to be creative yet safely make science discoveries by themselves.

A few days ago four grandchildren and “Grandpa” visited our nearby lake for a quick, informal fishing experience on a hot summer day. The success score: three small sunfish/bluegills for two grandsons. The fish were quickly returned to their natural environment—an example of “catch and release” fishing. Afterward we were hiking across the field to our car. Our granddaughter came upon a fascinating event. A cicada killer wasp had captured a dog-day cicada much larger than itself and was energetically dragging it toward its underground burrow. Reference books supply pictures of this natural phenomenon and describe the fascinating sequence of events leading up to the main event. For example, several weeks in advance the female wasp  excavates the underground burrow to a vertical depth of twelve inches, complete with side tunnels. The cicada is hunted, anesthetized with a quick sting, and flown to its underground lair—a challenging aeronautical feat. After the cicada prey is dragged into its subterranean home, the female wasp deposits its egg. The egg hatches, transforms to a larva which feeds on the cicada, then overwinters as a pupa. It emerges as a new generation cicada killer the next summer.

Wasps inspire both healthy and unhealthy fear in both adults and children. Insects, particularly wasps and bees, are more interested in their own welfare and safety than searching out humans to sting. As Grandpa and four grandchildren observed the wonder of the cicada killer’s amazing feat, I counseled the children not to shrink back or cry out in horror as if to escape a dreadful wasp attack. Rather, they should quietly observe the spectacular natural event. 

Cicada killers help control the cicada population. Most predatory insects such as wasps are part of the natural system acting to maintain an ecological balance among thousands of various species. In light of the fact that cicada killer wasp males never sting and females rarely if ever sting, we should respectfully leave these animals alone. They are part of a healthy ecological system.  

The unique behavior of cicada killer wasps is genetically programmed. In researching the meaning of this phrase we discovered a quote highlighting the complexity and mystery of this concept: “Complex behavioral traits…..are influenced by tens if not hundreds of genes, each intersecting with the environment and each other in unpredictable ways.” (Benson, Behavioral genetics, meet molecular biology, 2004). Genetic programming enables the wasp to accomplish multiple survival tasks they did not consciously learn. A catalog of abilities manifest by this singular species of wasps strains credibility! 

Beyond the scope of comprehension of our grandchildren, we reference more advanced resources concerning hymenoptera—the biological classification which includes cicada killer wasps. Cicada killers are but one species of wasps. There are 21 species of cicada killer wasps in the world, but only a few in North America. There are more than 30,000 wasp species on Earth. Many articles deal with the unique behaviors of cicada killers. We encourage readers to research the many articles on cicada killer wasps, or any other wondrous wild creatures encountered in your neighborhood.

A final word about hymenoptera, the class of insects to which cicada killers belong. There are 115,000 known species of class hymenoptera in the world: wasps, bees, and ants. Each species possesses stunning genetically programmed functions and behaviors.

Our secular schools possess multiple textbooks on biology. A substantial majority of biology texts tout evolution, but do not mention divine creation as a possible explanatory hypothesis to account for the incredible morphological, functional, and behavioral diversity of millions of species of living things, including this post’s topic du jour, the cicada killer wasp. We quote a passage from an ACS (American Chemical Society) website concerning evolution. It is “…..not a hypothesis but the scientifically accepted explanation of the incontrovertible fact that life and its many forms has changed over the years.” If the ACS article on evolution ended there, we may be able to endorse it. The created world has experienced the appearance of many geologically sudden new forms of life over long periods of planetary time. As conditions changed over vast time periods new forms of animals appeared, examples of “Ongoing Creation.”         

Our blog has described the programmed abilities of many animals, including predation and parasitism. Such features are a source of wonder, not fear. We rejoice in God’s created operational system for our living world, teeming with life. Intuitively, when we examine the intricate design and functional features of living creatures in only one phylum—arthropoda—we sense that these operational features could not have arisen merely by accident without the input of an infinitely intelligent Creator. 

As we studied the world of living things back in the day with our children and grandchildren, I hear myself saying  “God had great ideas!” These were expressions of worship—emotional and intellectual responses to divine natural wonders surrounding us wherever we look.  



Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The Matter of Energy (or the Energy of Matter)

 The topic of energy may not inspire lofty, poetic thoughts, except perhaps, to a professional scientist. It may fascinate a home buyer. What are its heating and air-conditioning energy costs, for example? Alternatively, the topic may relate to industrial or agricultural history, economics, or contemporary politics. Likewise, the topic of matter is often defined in scientific contexts—matter takes up space and has mass, not to mention a multitude of other defining characteristics. When the energy/matter relationship is discussed, we are reminded of Albert Einstein and his famous equation. He proposed that matter and energy are two sides of the same coin. Very few humans fully understand that statement, including many scientists and science instructors.  

Our post title connects matter and its relationship to energy. Both concepts relate to each other in several ways. The Creator of All Things designed and created our universal home so that energy and matter are interconnected. In everyday life, most people may not grasp the significance of this cause/effect connection. From the instant of the initial creation, however, energy naturally flowed from the action of processes taking place in matter.

Think about your high school chemistry course. To one degree or another you and your classmates were fascinated that all the matter in our environment consists of less than 100 different elementary substances—elements. The elements commonly combine with each other in definite proportions to form tens of thousands of different substances called compounds. They also mix with each other in indefinite proportions to form infinite quantities of different mixtures. We have a plethora of millions of different substances to sustain and enrich our lives. Most everyday substances are chemically classified mixtures. Millions of different substances are composed of just a few elements, less than 100 naturally occurring elements.

The nearly 100 elements exist in particles called atoms. These tiny atomic entities have a dense central nucleus containing two particles—protons, each with a positive electrical charge, and neutrons with no electrical charge. Protons and neutrons possess nearly identical mass and are tightly bound together by one of four fundamental universal forces—the strong nuclear force. It is the strongest force in our universe. Other particles of the atom are tiny electrons swarming around the dense central nucleus. Electrons have a negative electrical charge.   

There exists a systematic organizational structure of matter in the nearly 100 “simple” elements. It is difficult to conceive that the structure of elemental atoms occurred “by chance” in the beginning. The minuscule number of naturally occurring elements is organized sequentially and coherently. (Each successive element has one additional proton, for example. Atoms possess an equal number of electrons.) A 19th century Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev, was an important pioneer in formally proposing a coherent system of element classification in 1869. Mendeleev’s creative proposals were challenging, not because the Creator created an incoherent, chaotic chemical world, but because the beauty of our created world of elemental matter is far more complex and wonderful than chemists of the 18th and 19th century imagined. As their knowledge expanded, other chemists developed their own concepts of a “periodic table” of chemical elements. Mendeleev’s concepts have been recognized as insightful in terms of our knowledge of chemical characteristics of elements, but many other talented scientists expanded our knowledge.

Our limited discussion of energy and matter and how the two topics are linked does not do justice to the topic of divine intelligent design. Did the Creator originate this linkage from the beginning of time? We propose that this linkage is according to the plan of the Creator, the Intelligent Designer. In a future post we will discuss the fact that tremendous quantities of energy are locked within matter, both simple elements like hydrogen in the Sun, our solar companion, as well as in more exotic radioactive elements. Humans have discovered knowledge of fusion of hydrogen in the Sun as well as knowledge of the power of exotic radioactive elements. Both are powerful suppliers of energy from “ordinary” matter!