Massachusetts Institute of Technology evolution expert Dane Wittrup isn’t trying to prove evolution in his laboratory. Instead, he’s trying to use evolution to produce novel proteins that may be used for such purposes as cancer treatment.
Mutations may make the cells “better.”
Known as directed evolution, the process involves a trial-and-error approach of irradiating cells to induce a high level of mutations, resulting in abnormal genomes—in the hopes that some of the cells will perform a certain task better than the previous generation. For example, Wittrup describes beginning with yeast cells, some of which have proteins on their surface which bind to a protein on tumor cells. He screens for the cells that bind the best, irradiating them to find proteins that bind even better.
“At the end, you have proteins that bind very tightly and specifically,” Wittrup said. “In the lab, it’s the same rules as natural evolution, but we get to set the criteria for who survives.”
Does Wittrup’s success demonstrate the possibility of Darwinian evolution? No, for multiple reasons. First, although mutations may make the cells “better” (within the context of the researchers’ goals) at some task, this does not imply we are seeing an increase in information as molecules-to-man evolution would require; in the example given, the selected cells already did what Wittrup wanted them to do—he is merely trying to hone that ability. Second, in this case, Wittrup is carefully overseeing a process of unnatural irradiation and selection—a different story than unguided, unaided evolution. And of course, even if biologists could produce a genuine example of information-adding evolution in the lab, no such demonstration would prove that life is the product of evolution.
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