Biochemistry: Randomness and God

DNA wrapping around histone proteins (coloured) by Penn State – Flickr. License: CC2.0

How can a random process generate meaningful mechanisms? This is the question that Keith Fox, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Southampton and Associate Director of the Faraday Institute, asked in his seminar at the Faraday Institute last week. Biochemical reactions are chaotic at a molecular level, because it is impossible to predict where any one molecule will be at any particular time. When billions of the same molecule are together, however, it’s easier to predict what will happen.

Air contains about ten billion trillion (1022) molecules in every litre. The contents of a cell are even more densely packed, with about one third water and two thirds other molecules, and as thick as treacle. The average human cell contains about 10 million molecules of protein alone in a volume of about a billionth of a litre. Many molecules can take on more than one shape, but a collection of them will have an average property that can be measured – in the same way that snowflakes can be different shapes, but the overall properties of snow (and the water molecules that make the snowflakes) are the same.

Keith’s own work is on DNA, which usually takes on a double helix structure. DNA can take on other forms, and Keith studies the triple and quadruple helices that some stretches of DNA can make under certain conditions. Another property of DNA is that it is damaged all the time by factors as common as water, oxygen, and ultraviolet light. There are 168 genes involved in repairing damaged DNA, and this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was for work on this process.

3-strand DNA By İnfoCan  [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The biblical view of random processes is that they are all under God’s control. For example, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matt 10:29), and “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).

The randomness of biochemical processes can actually be very useful. DNA damage results in mutations, which provide opportunities for new properties to emerge as well as causing disease. DNA has a relatively stable structure, but with enough instability to allow the two strands to be separated by the cell’s molecular machinery for various purposes. Randomness can also be a way of achieving new things. One technique that biochemists sometimes use is to generate a whole series of DNA sequences and see which one does the job they’re looking for.

Nora und Jonas spielen Scrabble
Nora und Jonas spielen Scrabble By Jonas Ginter – Flickr. License: CC2.0

The fact that randomness can be used in a creative way shows that it is compatible with the concept of a purposeful God. In other words, the presence of an element of chance in a process does not mean that any outcome is equally probable. For example, Scrabble involves a element of chance (when you pick letters from the bag) but an excellent player will not let that get in the way of them winning. So from a statistical point of view Keith is unlikely to ever win a game of scrabble against his wife, no matter how many times they play!

The biochemist and theologian Arthur Peacocke thought that chance processes might be God’s way of giving his creatures the free will to explore their full potential. For Keith, random processes may indeed be God’s way of allowing us to choose, while achieving his aims overall.

This post is a summary of the seminar “Randomness & God in the Biochemical Context” by Prof Keith Fox, given on 17th November 2015. A recording (video or audio) is available to download from the Faraday Institute website.

Photo credit: Nigel Bovey

Ruth Bancewicz is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where she works on the positive interaction between science and faith. After studying Genetics at Aberdeen University, she completed a PhD at Edinburgh University, based at the MRC Human Genetics Unit. She spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology at Edinburgh University, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth then moved to The Faraday Institute to develop the Test of FAITH resources, the first of which were launched in 2009. Ruth is a trustee of Christians in Science and on the advisory council of BioLogos.

Guest Post: The Creator of the Seas and all that is in them

If Whales Could Fly by Christopher Michel – Flickr – License: Creative Commons 2.0
If Whales Could Fly by Christopher Michel – Flickr – License: Creative Commons 2.0

It is easy to forget that we human beings are not the be all and end all of God’s magnificent creation. From one perspective we are simply creatures in it. From another perspective we are unique in his creation in being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). However, both the beauty and abundance of marine life and the biblical passages concerned with the sea show that Continue reading

The Human Side of Science

How can a scientist who is also a person of faith communicate their experiences of working in a lab? In this video five scientists express how science has helped their faith to grow.

In a further series of videos, I explain my motivations behind writing God in the lab (Monarch, Jan 2015), and describe my favourite parts Continue reading

God in the Lab: New book by Ruth Bancewicz

God in the Lab final cover copy 2What is it like to be a person of faith and a scientist? In a video interview[1] the theologian and former biophysicist Alister McGrath commented that we need Christian scientists who are “prepared to enter into the public arena in debate, in comment, and in the writing of books showing how faith enriches their science.”

This blog has been one such attempt to show the positive effect of science on faith, and judging by the comments over the years, it has encouraged a number of people in that direction. On the 15th of this month, Monarch will publish my book God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith, which Continue reading

Some Very Extraordinary Animals: The Burgess Shale Fossils

Hallucigenia © Apokryltaros, Creative Commons 3.0 license
Hallucigenia © Apokryltaros, Creative Commons 3.0 license

I want to share with you some of what must be the most odd-looking animals of all time. Of course they only look strange because most of us have never encountered them before. They lived in the sea more than 500 million years ago, were preserved in the mud that engulfed them at their death, and ended up as part of the Rocky Mountain Range, northern Greenland, and south-east China.

The creatures in question are named after the place where they were first found, the Burgess Shale, which lies between Mount Field and Wapta Mountain in Yoho National Park, Canada. They are thought to have lived in fairly deep water a short distance from the ancient continent of Laurentia. [1] At that time there was very little life on the land, but the oceans were Continue reading

The Art of Molecular Biology

Picture of containers of DNA 'markers'
© Algiamil,

In Science, Faith and Creativity I explained how science can be creative, and that a Christian working in the sciences might see that as part of their relationship with God. Apart from a brief description in The Creativity of Chemistry, I haven’t yet given an example of what creative science looks like, so I will attempt to remedy that here. (This is a longer post than usual because I have included a basic explanation of molecular biology for the non biologist.)

I personally came to appreciate the creativity of science while studying genetics. Creative people generate ideas and make new things, and I discovered that lab-based research involves both of those activities. My favourite part of the genetics course at Aberdeen University was molecular biology: the study of DNA and proteins. I enjoyed the challenges of problem solving, lateral thinking and visual model making that were involved in exploring the micro-world of cells and molecules. I also appreciated that fact that we were learning about solutions to real-life issues. Continue reading

Redeeming Creativity

Darko Skender,
© Darko Skender,

So far my writing about creativity has been very optimistic. But not everything we do is good. There are two ways of looking at human creativity: ‘sacramental’ and ‘dialectical’. In sacramental creativity we are seen as co-creators, because what we do continues God’s act of creation in the world. A dialectical view of creativity concentrates on the fact that human beings are not perfect: we do wrong, and as such are not capable of co-creating with God. What we make is always corrupted in some way. Only through re-creation can we create well, with God’s help.[1] I find the dialectical view more helpful, because it highlights both the responsibility and the vulnerability of being human.

Thomas Merton was concerned about the corruption of creativity in art. Though writing in the 1960’s, much of what he says is no doubt applicable to contemporary art in the 2010’s. The first part of his essay ‘Theology of Creativity’, describes how a modern artist can sometimes be elevated to a priestly role Continue reading