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Creation 41(3):39–41, July 2019

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The mysterious alien tablet

Delving into DNA’s mind-blowing, multi-layered information system

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mysterious-alien-tablet

According to Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft, “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.”1 Here, Gates is referring to ‘the genome’—the set of instructions encoded in DNA that is used to control embryonic development (in humans to direct the growth of a baby from a fertilized egg) and the day-to-day workings of biological cells.

In an attempt to help the reader gain just a small insight into the sophistication of DNA, I will tell an imaginary story concerning the discovery of an electronic tablet in a deserted alien spaceship. 2On this was a whole library of documents and books.

The find generated great excitement and the best linguists in the world cooperated in an attempt to decipher the strange symbols in the books. One document contained diagrams of the ship’s layout and engine room, with many of the parts labelled. This provided the vital clues needed to begin to understand the alien language.

The more the books were studied, the more amazed the linguists became. In a review meeting, one professor reported that sentences had to be read from right to left as in Hebrew. Another disagreed and said that they should be read from left to right as in English. Further study indicated that they were both right. One of the team had been studying what appeared to be an instruction manual for servicing the ship’s propulsion system. He discovered that, typically, the same set of characters (or symbols) had to be read from left to right to obtain one instruction and then from right to left to obtain another instruction. That is, each character string appeared to have two meanings.

mysterious-alien-characters

A few weeks later, another professor, an expert in cryptology, came rushing into the staffroom, his face flushed with excitement. He had discovered that some parts of the same instruction manual could be read using different languages. He later explained to a news reporter that it was a bit like having a book where you began by reading in English to get the first half of the story, and then you started again at the first page and read the same words in French to get the second half of the story.

In addition, in one of the languages all the words had just three letters. But, by starting with different letters, completely different sentences with different meanings were obtained. In one section, the basic text was as follows:3

mysterious-alien-characters-position

By forming the three-letter words starting at position 1, (diagram above) the sentence’s message turned out to be a specification for a fuel mixture. By forming the words starting at position 2, it was an instruction for dealing with a potentially damaging engine vibration. By forming the words starting at position 3, a warning was spelled out against running the engines too fast before they had reached their optimum operating temperature. Reading this same set of characters backwards provided information needed to reboot the engine’s computer.

 exons
Fig. 1. To make a protein, DNA must first be copied before it is ‘translated’ into the protein language. But before translation can happen, the introns must be removed. The remaining exons can be spliced together in many ways to produce different instructions and thereby code for different proteins.

As the project director remarked, there was an astonishing level of ‘data compression’, where a lot of information was packed into a short string of characters. One set of characters appeared to contain up to 12 different instructions, dependent on how it was read.

Six months later, there was another remarkable discovery. Needing a quiet place to work, one of the researchers took the tablet into what appeared to be the spaceship’s kitchen. When she opened a document, she noticed that some of the characters had been ‘greyed out’ and were hardly visible:

Reading the black characters only, she found a recipe for an item on a lunch menu. The document seemed to be ‘context dependent’, meaning that it altered itself to provide the information needed to perform specific tasks in a particular place. This was confirmed when the researcher took the tablet into what appeared to be a navigation office. At once, the text changed so that different characters became greyed out. The resulting readable text was later discovered to be part of a procedure for plotting a course through a distant solar system.

Information systems in biological cells

Our story might seem fantastical to the reader, but there are real-world parallels, and the human genome is like this.4 DNA can be read forwards and backwards, and different instructions can often overlap, even in reverse. As with the alien language, in many places in the genome, different ‘sentences’ are formed by starting with different letters. Moreover, just as the text displayed by the aliens’ tablet altered automatically according to which room it was in, so genes (DNA instructions) are automatically switched on or off, causing plants and animals to change or function in different ways, enabling them to adapt to different environments.

More than that, human genes are composed of sets of DNA ‘letters’ divided into sections known as ‘introns’ and ‘exons’. After the DNA is copied, the introns have to be removed and the remaining exons joined together (see fig. 1). Different exons are combined in different ways to produce many different instructions. These, in turn, are used to produce different proteins at different times, and the proteins produced vary from one cell type to another. In fact, the human genome has a massive ‘splicing and dicing’ system that ‘cuts and pastes’ DNA, swapping exons around in a very complex way.5 A single exon might be included in many different genes, some of which code for (specify the form of) proteins that have little similarity. In fruit flies (Drosophila) the same ‘gene’ can be used to specify thousands of different proteins.6

histones
Fig. 2. In more complex organisms (e.g. not bacteria), DNA is wrapped around proteins called histones. By controlling the wrapping process, genes can be switched on and off as required. Some stretches of DNA include information that specifies how and where the DNA binds to the histones and thus when and how genes are used. Thus, a ‘gene’ may carry information specifying how a protein should be made and, at the same time, information that controls when that protein is to be produced. This is like having a sentence that has two meanings.

Also, the same set of letters can have different meanings depending on which ‘language’ is used to read it. A section of DNA might simultaneously code for (i.e. provide the instructions for) the form of a protein, an intron-exon splice site (fig. 1), and a histone binding site (see fig. 2). All of these require different biological nanomachines to ‘read’ and act upon the information.

Our alien language analogy is only a dim reflection of the amazing complexity of the language of DNA, and the information system in cells is actually far more sophisticated than this. For example, DNA is not the only molecule that carries information in the cell. Other molecules, like long-chain sugars,7 are used to modify proteins. Cell membrane patterns, and even the electric fields generated by membrane molecules, also carry important information. All of this controls how embryos grow and how the adult body functions.

Evolutionists have never been able to point to processes in nature that appear remotely capable of producing an information system with this level of complexity and sophistication. Rather, they simply believe by faith that such processes exist. In particular, it is very difficult for Darwinists to explain DNA sequences that function in many different ways. Even if a random mutation led to an improvement in the sequence when it was read in one way, it would, almost without exception, always degrade the information when the sequence was read in other ways.

In beholding the beauty and intricacy of the biological world we should surely echo the words of King David to God in Psalm 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

References and notes

  1. Gates, B., The Road Ahead, Penguin Group, New York, p. 188, 1995. Return to text.
  2. Of course, CMI rejects the idea of aliens—see our documentary Alien Intrusion: Unmasking the Deception. Return to text.
  3. The symbols used in this illustration are an old Persian cuneiform script, here randomly arranged. Return to text.
  4. Sanford, J., Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome, Ivan Press, New York, pp. 131–133, 2005. Return to text.
  5. Carter, R., Splicing and dicing the human genome; creation.com/splicing, 29 Jun 2010. Return to text.
  6. Zinn, K., Dscam and neuronal uniqueness, Cell 129(3):455-6, 4 May 2007; cell.com . Return to text.
  7. While DNA and RNA sequences are one-dimensional, sugar molecules are three-dimensional, and therefore potentially carry even more information. See Wells, J., Membrane patterns carry ontogenetic information that is specified independently of DNA, BIO-Complexity 2:1–28, 2014;bio-complexity.org. See also, ID inquiry: Jonathan Wells on codes in biology, Interview, Discovery Institute, 2015; discovery.org. Return to text.

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