Of Bacteria and Throw Pillows

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The strange thing about E. coli, as I explain in my book Microcosm, is that it has played a central part not just in the modern science of life, but in the political conflicts over life. It may come as a surprise that a humble gut germ could get involved in culture wars. But you need only consider how much attention creationists have been lavishing on E. coli in recent years, hoping to use it as evidence that life did not evolve–that it was created or designed instead.

Originally, creationists claimed that structures in E. coli showed clear evidence of being created–they were complex, made up of lots of parts, and seemed to work like manmade machines. The flagellum–the tail E. coli spins hundreds of times a second–was one of their favorite examples. It reminded them of car engines, of outboard motors. This sort of thinking reached its climax a couple years back in the Dover Trial, in which parents claimed their school board was introducing religion into school in the guise of “intelligent design.” One lawyer joked that it should have been called the Flagellum Trial. In journalist Lauri Lebo’s excellent new account of the trial, The Devil in Dover, she recounts how one of the plaintiff parents came dressed as a flagellum, with a little tail poking out of her pants.

The school board lost, and in the scientific arena–where scientists publish their experiments in peer-reviewed journals–so have the advocates of a designed flagellum. The evolutionary history of the flagellum is becoming increasingly clear as scientists discover related copies of flagellar genes in other structures. But there are still people ready to sell you an intelligently designed flagellum throw pillow (or beer stein or apron).

Now E. coli poses a new quandary for creationists. As I wrote earlier this month, scientists at Michigan State University have been tracking the evolution of E. coli in their lab for 20 years. They’ve been experiencing natural selection as they’ve adapted to this environment, and in one of the twelve lines of these microbes, the bacteria evolved the ability to digest citrate. The lack of citrate metabolism has been, till now, a hallmark of E. coli as a species. The scientists don’t know precisely how the bacteria evolved this capacity, but it appears to have involved a series of mutations that happened over several thousand generations.

This new paper has apparently touched a creationist nerve. There have been two sorts of responses. One has been to downplay the finding. Unless E. coli actually evolves into a human being in front of someone’s eyes, then its evolution is insignificant. “It’s important for us all to remember that when we read science news that seems to ‘confirm’ evolution, it’s never a true threat to the biblical worldview and the creation account because God’s Word never changes but man’s fallible ideas do,” Answers in Genesis consoles us.

Some have responded by suggesting there must be some mistake in the experiment, perhaps even fraud. Perhaps there was some contaminating DNA that endowed the bacteria with the ability to feed on citrate, for example. Andrew Schlafly, who runs a site called Conservapedia that’s supposed to be a conservative alternative to Wikipedia, wrote a letter to the senior author on the E. coli, Richard Lenski. He demanded that Lenski “post the data supporting your remarkable claims so that we can review it.”

Lenski responded politely at first that as far as he could tell, the relevant data Schlafly wanted was in the paper, which Schlafly had not bothered to read closely. When Schlafly repeated his demands–and as the discussions on the Conservapedia site veered to accusations of Piltdown-Man-level fraud–Lenski wrote a barbed reply that’s definitely worth reading in full. You can see the whole correspondence at Panda’s Thumb or Bad Science.

It is surreal to watch people with Conservapedia claim to be champions of science. Conservapedia has a densely detailed entry for Young Earth creationism, and another for Flood Geology. But their entry for Big Bang Theory is tiny–and taken up in large part by the objections of creationists. The entry for parasites informs us of the young Earth view that parasites are the result of Adam’s sin. What’s not surreal is to see E. coli at the eye of the storm. It’s business as usual for the little bug.