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New plant colours—is this new information?

CMI scientist answers a skeptic

11 July 2000

One skeptic believes that he has found an example of ‘new information’ arising by mutations and natural selection. Could he be correct?

Question/statements from skeptic

Since I have some background in genetics and plant breeding, I can tell you that the entire field of plant breeding is based on ‘new information’ arising from random mutations. New traits do appear, at the molecular and morphological level new proteins, new pigments, etc. These are novelties.

Two parents with blue eyes will generally produce children with blue eyes, and likewise two plants with white flowers will generally produce new plants with white flowers, but sometimes that seedlings with red or purple flower turns up, not because a recessive allele has been revealed, but because a mutation has altered an existing pigment or biochemical pathway to produce something entirely new, that has never existed before. This is NEW INFORMATION.

As an example, there is nothing like an ear of corn in any other species of grass. It seems to be entirely unique in the plant kingdom. And yet there are three or four species of grass, very similar to corn in their overall growth, but with typical grass-like reproductive organs. The funny thing is, they will breed with corn to produce fully fertile offspring. It is clear that a combination of mutation and selection has produced in corn an unusual and entirely novel structure from a very typical grass— in other words, NEW INFORMATION.

Response by Don Batten, Ph.D.

The question comes from someone who does not understand the concept of information. The appearance of a ‘new trait’ does not have to involve the addition of information via the DNA coding. In fact, as bioinformatics expert Dr Lee Spetner has demonstrated (in his book, Not by Chance, Judaica Press), such is so unlikely that it could never be the basis for the increased information needed for molecules-to-man evolution. Information content is measured not by the number of traits, but by what is called the specified complexity of a base sequence or protein amino acid sequence. A mutation, being a random change in highly specified information contained in the nucleic acid base sequence, could almost never do anything but scramble the information; that is, reduce the information.

Now sometimes such a loss of information results in a new trait—for example, purple or red flowers where there were only blue ones before. This would have to be studied at the DNA base sequence level (or amino acid sequence in the enzyme producing the pigment, or the pigment itself) to show this. For example, a blue pigment could be changed into a red or purple pigment by loss of a side-chain from the basic pigment molecule. Such a change would involve a loss of specified complexity and therefore a loss of information. Even an informationally neutral change could be responsible—this is not to be confused with Kimura’s neutral mutation, which has nothing to do with the concept of information, only the effect on survival. Even a change of one amino acid in a protein, not altering information content, can alter energy levels in such a way as to change the visible absorption spectrum, e.g. by reducing the number of consecutive conjugated bonds. And a small change in pH can have a large effect on color (this effect was overlooked by a group of molecular biologists who managed to get the gene for the blue pigment in hydrangeas into a rose—the rose was not blue, although the pigment was manufactured, because the cell pH was not the same as a hydrangea’s!).

Of the many hundreds of antibiotic, herbicide and insecticide resistance mechanisms studied at a biochemical level, none involve addition of specified complexity in the DNA. Although some are ‘new traits’ due to mutations, all involve loss of information. An example is the loss of control over the production of an enzyme that happens to break down penicillin in Staphylococcus aureus, resulting in the production of greatly increased amounts of the enzyme and thus conferring resistance to penicillin. Another mode of antibiotic resistance due to mutation is decreased effectiveness of a membrane transport protein so that the antibiotic is no longer taken up by the cell (but the normal function of the transporter is also impaired and the bacterium is less fit to survive in the wild). However, much antibiotic resistance seems to be acquired by the transfer of plasmids from other species of bacteria via conjugation, which of course does not explain the ultimate origin of the information.

What about the corn story? The questioner is probably correct about the species of grass and the origin of corn. I have no problem with that. Creationists would say that the species that interbreed with corn (maize) are of the same created kind (see Ligers and wholphins? What next?, Q&A: Speciation). However, until the biochemical/genetic basis of the difference between maize and its wild relatives is determined, it cannot be said that the maize inflorescence is due to new information. Loss of information in some base sequences responsible for early steps in inflorescence development could easily account for such seemingly large differences.

It must be noted (again) that creationists do not say that mutations are always harmful, just that they are almost invariably a loss of information (i.e. specified complexity). Sometimes a loss of information can be beneficial, but it is a loss of information. For example, loss of function of wings in the flightless cormorant in the Galápagos Islands, which can now dive better than its flying cousins, or flightless beetles on a windswept island that are better off because they are less likely to be blown into the sea—see Beetle bloopers.

Evolution needs swags of new information, if a microbe really did change into a man over several billion years. The additional new information would take nearly a thousand books of 500 pages each to print the sequence. Random changes cannot account for a page, or even a sentence, of this, let alone accounting for all of it. The evolutionist has an incredible faith!

Further reading: In the Beginning Was Information by Dr Werner Gitt (an information scientist in Germany). The Mystery of Life’s Origin by Thaxton, Bradley and Olsen—these are thermodynamics experts and they deal with the origin of information from a thermodynamics point of view, showing the impossibility of natural processes creating the information in living things. See also Q&A: Information Theory.