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Genes on the Move

Horizontal Gene Transfer Messes Up Darwin’s Scheme

by Denyse O’Leary

Explicitly Darwinian evolution feels like today's version of medieval miracle tales. Just substitute animal fossils for holy relics and—behold!—the age of miracles is not over. With fossils, as with relics, remarkable things do sometimes happen, but they happen so much less frequently than believers have hoped. Darwin's followers are forever pouncing on some minor event and saying, "Proof! Proof!", ignoring the big picture.

In 2012, late in his career, evolutionary geologist Donald Prothero admitted that, in evolution, stasis (no change over vast stretches of time) is the general pattern. Gradualism (slow Darwinian change) is rare, and evolutionary biologists have known that for decades.1 Yet Prothero himself included Haeckel's famously fake embryo drawings in his 1994 textbook with Robert H. Dott, Jr., even though, by then, all experts knew or should have known that the drawings were fake.2 None the wiser, he strenuously participates in the battle for Darwin today.

So in this post-millennial Age of Faith, we even have the same fakery around such relics as plagued an earlier one. The Darwinian noise machine drowns out the fact that there are well­attested, underreported mechanisms of evolution. The most important might turn out to be horizontal gene transfer (HGT).

Sharing Without Mating

HGT was only discovered in recent decades. It is the process whereby bacteria and a variety of other life forms can acquire genes from organisms around them (i.e., horizontally) rather than from their parents (i.e., vertically).3 HGT, rather than Darwinian selection, is now considered by many to be the main cause of the swift spread of antibiotic resistance in organisms. Some researchers estimate that there are "10,000 unique genes flowing via HGT among 2,235 bacterial genomes,"4 providing the bacteria with genetic information they didn't inherit from their parents, including antibiotic resistance.

Microbes were fighting natural antibiotics this way, we are told, long before humans learned how to invent them. Bacteria that resist today's antibiotics have been found in Klondike permafrost (underground frost that never melts) from 30,000 years ago.5

Neither of Darwin's two ­proposed mechanisms, natural selection and sexual selection, confers this immunity, but rather the HGT process, through which microbes can share genetic material without mating, dividing, or otherwise reproducing.6

And it isn't just bacteria. Plants and animals are also now suspected of sometimes using HGT7—though so far this is only an inference and has not been directly observed in such higher organisms. An article in The Scientist tells us that "horizontal transfer of a particular DNA sequence among a diverse range of vertebrates is more widespread than previously believed."8 Surprisingly, a species of sea slug, an animal, incorporates algae's genes and whole chlorophyll factories (chloroplasts) to produce its own food, just like a plant.9 One researcher commented, "The process of evolution just isn't what many evolutionary biologists think it is."10

Spreading the Potential Around

Indeed not. The official Darwinian version for decades has been: Random mutations occur in an individual organism's genome; they are passed on through mating; and then natural selection weeds out the less efficient offspring, somehow producing astonishingly complex new machinery in the process.

In much-better-attested HGT, by contrast, the mutations are not random (acquired genes must blend into the organism), and mating is not how the genes are acquired. Natural selection merely means that only some offspring of a large brood can survive. An advantageous acquired gene can improve an individual's odds; however, a mudslide, a new predator, or a new parasite can obviate the minor advantage.

But don't look to HGT for dreams of randomly built, complex new machinery—i.e., new species. HGT only involves the swapping and sharing of pre-existing genes. Horizontal gene transfer does not originate machinery—it only spreads the potential around. The changes it produces are small, though they can be significant. That's evolution in action, but it's pretty limited.

For the origin of new genetic information—new genes, new species—intelligent design is still the best game in town.

Just imagine no Darwin. Or at least a sharply diminished one. 

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