Ghosts in the E. coli machine

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In today’s New York Times I have an article about the quest to create a virtual organism—a sort of digital Frankenstein accurate down to every molecular detail. The creature that the scientists I write about want to reproduce is that familiar denizen of our gut, Escherichia coli.

There are two things about this enterprise I find particularly delicious. One is that this little microbe is just too complex for today’s computers to handle. For now scientists are just laying the groundwork for a day that might come in 10 or 20 years when they have enough processing power to handle E. coli. Another delicious fact is that despite fifty years of intense research, scientists don’t know what a lot of E. coli’s genes are for. All told, this black box swallows up about a quarter of its genome.

The creationist frenzy of the past couple weeks gives these two facts special meaning. Creationists like to point out that life is very complex. They like to point out that despite years of work, scientists have yet to figure out the complete series of events by which much of that complexity evolved. This state of affairs does not represent unfinished business, according the creationists, but an outright failure. And that failure is proof that life could not have evolved. Therefore, the argument goes, life must have been directly designed by some powerful being.

To see why this argument impresses so few scientists, consider E. coli. Scientists are confident that they can explain how this microbe works with a purely mechanistic account—in other words, with the interactions of atoms, molecules, modules made of genes and proteins, and the like. It’s worked reasonably well so far, allowing them to create good hypotheses how E. coli strings together proteins, builds cell walls, and so on.

But despite decades of intense research, much of E. coli remains unexplained. In their obsession with mechanistic explanations, scientists have failed to find a complete account for how E. coli works. If you buy the argument for design, you must conclude that microscopic supernatural beings dwell inside E. coli, operating it like a microbial submarine.

Of course, nobody who actually does actual research on E. coli says this. They’re too busy trying to figure out how E. coli works. If you want to find examples of their work, go to scientific journals, or visit Thierry Emonet’s site. If, on the other hand, you want to find people claiming that the yet-to-be-discovered is evidence of supernatural intervention, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Op-ed pages are always a good place to start.