Enzyme expert exposes evolution’s error
Jonathan Sarfati interviews Finnish biochemist Dr Matti Leisola
Dr Matti Leisola obtained his D.Sc. (Tech) in biotechnology from the Helsinki (Finland’s capital) University of Technology in 1979. His extensive career includes winning the Latsis Prize for a significant young researcher in 1987 in Switzerland, Director of Research (1988–1997) in an international Biotech company, and most recently Dean of the Faculty of Chemical and Materials Sciences at the new Finnish Aalto University, where he has held the rank of Professor Emeritus of Bioprocess Engineering since 2012. He has published over 140 papers, mainly on enzyme research, authored 20 articles in books or conference proceedings, and obtained seven patents. Dr Leisola’s scientific articles are cited over 5,000 times in the scientific literature. He is presently the vice-president of the International Society of Rare Sugars and the editor-in-chief of an open-access journal, Bio-Complexity.
Many of our readers would remember Dr Matti Leisola from CMI’s Darwin documentary, The Voyage that Shook the World (2009). But he is much better known to the scientific community as an expert in his area of enzymes. Dr Leisola explains:
“I like to call enzymes ‘the tools of life’. They are a type of protein—a macromolecule (large molecule) made out of specifically arranged amino acids. They are life’s catalysts—that is, they greatly speed up specific chemical reactions of living cells. Enzymes recognize, convert, transfer, transport, oxidize, reduce, join molecules together and break them apart.”
The instructions to build them are encoded on our DNA. Dr Leisola explains that just as the Finnish language has 29 letters,1 so the enzyme language has 20 biochemical ‘letters’ (amino acids), each of which is coded by three-letter ‘words’ in the DNA language (which has four different letters). For example, ‘Matti Leisola’ is a specific combination of 12 letters and one space. “This combination is so specific that it helps anybody to find me out of all the people in the world since no one else I know of has this same combination. An average enzyme contains about 300 biochemical letters. This makes each enzyme very specialized for a given task.”
For example, Matti’s group studied an enzyme called xylanase (see diagram right). It breaks down one of the most abundant carbohydrate polymers on earth called xylan, found in plant cell walls. This fibre makes up about 30% of the birch tree. The xylanase enzyme contains about 200 amino acids. Its protein code is a sentence that means: ‘degrade xylan’. Mammals lack this enzyme, so they can’t digest xylan.
Using a different letter for each different amino acid, the protein ‘sentence’ can be written as:
As with all enzymes, it is this sequence which enables this molecular machine to carry out its task. There is nothing about the chemistry or the physics of the amino acids that make up xylanase that will cause them to be ordered in the correct way. The order—the information—is imposed upon the matter via the sequence in which the amino acids are assembled, under programmed instructions within the cell.
We interviewed Dr Leisola because he is known as a skeptic of molecules-to-man evolution, which he calls “story-telling”. But he was not always skeptical, as he explains:
“I believed the standard story till I was about 22 years old. I used it (as I then thought) as a powerful weapon to argue against the Christian God. Without realizing it, I was a typical product of the western naturalistic educational system and I certainly wanted to remain autonomous, and actually hated the idea of God interfering with my life.”
But he changed, thanks to his girlfriend Marja—now his wife:
“She became a Christian and I was suddenly faced with the reality of her changed life and new values. This led me to study the evidence for Christianity. The search led me to Christ. I then wanted to understand how good a weapon Darwinism was against Christianity, and it did not take much effort to realize that it stood on a shaky foundation. I first realized it when studying biochemistry and the weak efforts to explain the origin of life based on some rudimentary experiments. So it all started with a change in my belief system. Everyone has a belief system and people use their belief system to interpret the facts; it’s not really about the facts.”
His own field of enzyme research strongly argues against evolution and for a designer. He argues that, contrary to common belief, there is no reasonable naturalistic explanation for the origin of such information-rich functional molecules, or to change one type into another: “It is very difficult to obtain the letter sequence ‘Matti Leisola’ through a random process. It is far more difficult to obtain the biochemical sentence that specifies ‘xylanase’.” And furthermore, even the simplest living things need over 350 functioning enzymes2 just as complex as xylanase. For origin-of-life theories, natural selection can’t help explain the origin of the enzymes for life, because natural selection requires self-reproducing entities so can’t be used to explain their origin.3
Matti also points out “the thousands of interrelated and carefully regulated functions in the living world. This is true at many levels: an individual cell, a multicellular organism, symbiotic relationships, and group intelligence and communication systems of e.g. ants and bees, and the balanced ecosystem. And all these remarkable things are coded for by just the four letters of DNA. Design begins with a thinking process, and a Mind that can simultaneously plan and execute this vast, tremendously complex holistic system, from the smallest detail to its grand totality, is completely beyond our limited capacity to understand. We should humbly bow down before such majesty and admit that we are really nothing. Psalm 92:5 in describing creation says of God, ‘Your thoughts are very deep.’ The Psalm continues, ‘A fool does not understand this.’”
Real science vs evolution
When Matti first questioned evolution, he was just beginning his scientific career. He would ask his professors how evolution could create biological novelties:
“They of course had stories but when it came to mechanisms (which science is all about) of evolution they had no real explanations. Later I started to present evidence for the limits of random change in scientific conferences of my own field and till now nobody has disagreed.”
With over a hundred published and widely cited scientific papers, Dr Leisola would be amused at the frequent claim, “No real scientist denies evolution.” But they redefine science as naturalism, and Matti points out, “A real scientist is searching for truth about nature and not naturalistic explanations.”
But doesn’t belief in creation harm science? Au contraire, Dr Leisola says:
“Christianity is the foundation of modern science and explains why we can do science: a rational God created a rational man in his own image so that he is able to understand the creation with his mind. Indeed, the Creator Jesus Christ is called the Logos (Λόγος John 1:1–3), and makes sense of this orderly universe and complexity of life. Those believing in a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life are the ones with a blind faith.”
Bacteria-to-biologist evolution has no bearing on real scientific work, but many claim that mimicking evolution, i.e. random changes and artificial selection, has enabled new enzymes to be produced.4 However, Dr Leisola is actually an expert in this area,5 and points out:
“These methods—even when under careful control—do not create anything but minor adaptations or variations on a theme. My research group has, for instance, engineered enzymes to function better in extreme conditions, and microorganisms to produce novel molecules. But these achievements have a well-designed enzyme to start with, are intelligently controlled, and there is always a limit to the extent of the change. It’s no wonder that living cells resist random changes because these are almost always downhill.”
Why does creation matter?
Dr Leisola has translated a number of creationist books into Finnish, as well as the script of our Darwin film; and he has also arranged visits to Finland of many overseas creationist scientists, such as the triple doctorate A.E. Wilder-Smith (1915–1995). So why is this so important?
“One of the big questions all humans face is, ‘Where did we come from?’ The apostle Paul writes in Romans 1 that God’s invisible attributes are so clearly seen in His works, that no one has any excuse to deny that He exists. So creation is fundamental to understanding our position and role in the universe.”
It’s also vital for understanding right and wrong. Dr Leisola is active in the area of the ethical implications of biotechnology.6 He agrees with agnostic evolutionary philosopher Michael Ruse, that if evolution were true, then ethics is just an illusion:
“Without absolutes there cannot be any ethical standards. This is clearly seen in the development of our western culture. When Christian consensus is gone the society is helpless in trying to impose rules on people. More and more people do what they want and fewer and fewer people are asking what is right and what is wrong.”
Matti instead says, following the Apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel—it gives answers to the big questions that no other system gives: what is the origin of universe and life, what is the basis of the uniqueness of man and morals, and what gives a solid basis for equal worth of all people and the value of an individual. Modern man is confused because he has no rational answers to these questions.”
Finally, I asked Dr Leisola how he would advise a young Christian wanting to study science:
“The best advice comes from the Bible. Prepare yourself to be always ready to give reasons for your beliefs (1 Peter 3:15). Be not ashamed of the gospel because it has the answers people are looking for (Romans 1:16) and be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). Do not get worried when the world hates you— it is a good signal—as long as it happens because of Jesus (John 15:18–20).”
References and notes
- The Finnish alphabet is like English, except it also contains Å, Ä, Ö as separate letters. Each letter is pronounced, so that the double-t in “Matti” is pronounced something like in “hot-tip”, and the double k in names like “Erkki” and “Pekka” is pronounced like the middle of “book-case”. The language itself is not Indo-European but Uralic, as are Estonian and Hungarian, so is very different from most other European languages, and likely from a different Babel family. Return to text.
- Research led by Hamilton Smith at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville reveals that the minimum genome consists of 387 protein-coding and 43 RNA-coding genes (Nature 439, 246–247 (19 January 2006) | doi:10.1038/439246a; Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103:425–430, 2006). Return to text.
- E.g. researcher Richard Wolfenden exhibited this blind spot: “Without catalysts, there would be no life at all, from microbes to humans. It makes you wonder how natural selection operated in such a way as to produce a protein that got off the ground as a primitive catalyst for such an extraordinarily slow reaction.” Cited in Lang, L.H., Without enzyme catalyst, slowest known biological reaction takes 1 trillion years, UNC School of Medicine, unc.edu, 5 May 2003. See also Natural selection cannot explain the origin of life. Return to text.
- For a related claim, see Batten, D., Genetic algorithms and robotic folly, J. Creation 14(3):13–15, 2000. Return to text.
- Leisola, M. and Turunen, O., Protein engineering: opportunities and challenges, Appl. Microbiol. Biotechnol. 75(6):225–232, 2007 | DOI 10.1007/s00253-007-0964-2. Return to text.
- Leisola M., Bioscience, Bioinnovations, and Bioethics. Adv Biochem Eng / Biotech 107: 41–56, 2007 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/ 10_2007_052. Ojala, P.J., Vähäkangas, J.M., Leisola M., Evolutionism in the Haeckelian shadow—Harry Federley, the father of the Finnish genetics and eugenics legislation, as a recapitulationist and a Monist propagator, Yearbook for European Culture of Science 1:61–86, Stuttgart, Germany, 2005. Ojala, P.J. and Leisola M., Haeckel: legacy of fraud to popularise evolution, J. Creation 21(3):102–110, 2007. Return to text.