Molecular Magic’s “Magician”

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on May 5, 2012
Featured in News to Know

Molecular magic still requires a “magician.”

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The chemical origin of life remains the “holy grail” of evolutionists seeking to explain how life randomly emerged from lifelessness. Biochemists led by Philipp Holliger report in Science they have synthesized six DNA analogues (called XNAs) and demonstrated that corresponding enzymes can copy them and let them evolve.

Holliger’s group writes, “Beyond heredity, specific XNAs have the capacity for Darwinian evolution and folding into defined structures. Thus, heredity and evolution, two hallmarks of life, are not limited to DNA and RNA but are likely to be emergent properties of polymers capable of information storage.”1 By showing that molecules other than those in the genomes of earth’s life forms can carry reproducible genetic information and evolve, they believe they’re solving the mystery of the chemical origins of life.

DNA and RNA are polymers with nucleic acids (“NA’s”) attached to backbones of sugar molecules. The “D” and the “R” stand for the type of sugar. XNAs are synthetic polymers that use the same nucleic acids as DNA but different sugar molecules (“X”) for the ladder stringing them together. Since the nucleic acid (NA) sequence encodes information, an XNA copy of a DNA strand is analogous to using the same words but recording them on papyrus instead of paper.

For life to evolve from non-living chemicals, some sort of information-containing, self-replicating molecules would first have to form by random processes (and, of course, to then build the organisms called for in the cellular blueprints).

Normally, in cells, DNA molecules are copied by unzipping the DNA double-helix and attaching a series of corresponding nucleic acids to the DNA templates. DNA polymerase enzymes read and copy DNA. DNA stores the genetic blueprint for living organisms. Therefore, for life to evolve from non-living chemicals, some sort of information-containing, self-replicating molecules would first have to form by random processes (and, of course, to then build the organisms called for in the cellular blueprints).

Holliger’s group made XNAs by finding several DNA polymerases able to bind to both DNA and a particular XNA. Those enzymes made XNA copies from DNA originals and also then made DNA strands from corresponding XNAs. Thus the XNAs proved to be copy-able by the sort of process cells use to copy ordinary DNA.

To demonstrate XNAs could evolve, an XNA was “designed to cling to a particular . . . target [and] those that failed to do so were washed away.” After several rounds of selection, each copying only molecules able to stick to the targets, the resulting copies contained faithful representations of any variant or mutation present. Since the process preserved those variations, the researchers say the XNAs evolved.

“We've been able to show that both heredity—information storage and propagation—and evolution, which are really two hallmarks of life, can be reproduced and implemented in alternative polymers other than DNA and RNA,”2 Holliger explains. In other words, he contends life could as well evolve from other nucleic acid polymers, with there being nothing so special about DNA and RNA.

Holliger does not claim to have either synthesized life or seen life evolve in the laboratory. Despite headlines suggesting the contrary—like “Scientists show that manmade nucleic acids can replicate and evolve”3—XNAs cannot replicate themselves. Living things must be able to reproduce. But an article in the Winnipeg Free Press states, “There may be no moment when the first life emerged, but instead an evolutionary process by which chemicals most of us would consider non-life gradually gave rise to living cells through natural selection.”

Molecules-to-man evolution, on the other hand, would require random interaction of chemicals producing molecules able to store information and replicate themselves. Furthermore, those lifeless randomly interacting chemicals would have to be able to create the informational blueprint for an actual organism and the code to transmit that information as well as a system for deciphering and implementing those coded instructions. Nothing in biology has ever been observed to do this. This study does not change that fact.

Additionally, the authors claim XNAs undergo Darwinian evolution because their culling process resembles natural selection, selecting the “best” copies to replicate. However, these “evolved” XNAs, by copying genetic variations, did not produce new genetic information but merely altered some of the original information. Evolution of new kinds of life would require creation of new information, something natural selection cannot provide.

However, being subject to natural selection does not conversely constitute sufficient grounds to be considered evolving and somehow lifelike.

Furthermore, the writer for the Winnipeg Free Press, explaining this connection between natural selection and life, writes, “Scientists don’t have a universal definition for life, but they do agree that to qualify as life, an organism must be subject to natural selection.” The implication is that since living things must respond to natural selection, to follow the rules of natural selection is to “evolve” and to therefore come closer to primordial life than ordinary molecules. However, being subject to natural selection does not conversely constitute sufficient grounds to be considered evolving and somehow lifelike. This connection represents a logical fallacy.

“That molecules other than DNA and RNA can successfully carry information does not solve the problem of where actual genetic information came from. This study has simply shown that other molecular components could work in a genetic system. But XNA replication does not demonstrate how randomly produced genetic information could direct the formation of a living organism,” explains molecular geneticist Dr. Georgia Purdom of Answers in Genesis. The XNAs only contained the information or the non-sense codes provided by their intelligent designers. Like a Xerox copy machine, the “evolution” observed in Holliger’s laboratory produced nothing new but only copied that which was previously created.

Without a Designer to supply genetic information, life from chemicals can neither sneak nor leap into existence. Showing other molecules can carry information fails to demonstrate a source for that information. And even if a molecular polymer (such as RNA “ribozymes”) can replicate itself, it contains no information unless that information is supplied by an outside source. From the Bible’s eyewitness account, we know that the source of all life and all the information contained in living things is the Creator God.

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  1. V. Pinheiro et al., “Synthetic Genetic Polymers Capable of Heredity and Evolution,” Science 336, no. 6079 (April 20, 2012): 341–344, doi:10.1126/science.1217622.
  2. “Evolution Seen in ‘Synthetic DNA’,” BBC News, April 19, 2012,
  3. Ruth Williams, “Synthetic Genetic Evolution,” TheScientist, April 19, 2012,


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