Nature as Fiber Artist?

With Tools Outmatching Knitting Needles & Crochet Hooks, Nature Designs with Sophisticated Stitchery

In case you haven’t heard, knitting is in, and crocheting is cool. These activities are no longer exclusively considered the pastime of gray-haired grandmas. Now the millennial generation has resurrected an interest in fiber arts. With good instructions, fiber (typically yarn or thread), basic tools, and adroit fingers, fiber artists can craft magnificent creations through their learned skills of weaving, knitting, tatting, needle-felting, and crocheting. As impressive as their skills are, however, the best artisans cannot fashion works as impressive as those found in the natural world.

As a “Gen X” fiber artist, this spring I decided to challenge my own skills on a whimsical rabbit. After the purchase of a cache of wool yarns and a pattern from Etsy, I set to work on what I figured to be a rather trivial task in crafting the crocheted critter.

Pattern in hand, with written step-by-step directions, I started – one stitch at a time on my creation. As I progressed, I encountered one or two seemingly ill-defined steps. In aggravation, I recognized that if I had an actual model of the rabbit – one already completed to guide me through those ambiguous steps – or even better images of the end product, progress would have gone so much more smoothly. Despite feeling directionless at times, I was stitching, ripping out, counting, and stitching again, until I got it “right.” With much intelligent effort, this stubborn-yet-frustrated fiber artist finally finished a first floppy-eared friend.

Now as I counted and skillfully stitched, the molecular biologist in me could not help but note the parallels between my own efforts as a fiber artist and the artistry of nature. A fiber artist takes one-dimensional, linear materials (yarn or thread), and using basic tools (knitting needles, crochet hooks) and acquired skills, weaves, stitches, and loops together a three-dimensional product (crocheted rabbit). In a similar fashion, nature uses its own linear materials (polypeptide chains made up of amino acids), and through the use of very sophisticated tools (enzymes, ribosomes, chaperone proteins), weaves, stitches, and loops together three-dimensional proteins that in complexity would put my bunny to shame.

To advance my point, let us consider only the process by which beta cells of the pancreas make insulin when blood sugar levels rise after a meal. Insulin appears in not one, but many forms in the human body: as a monomer, a dimer, and a hexamer, depending upon its location, pH, and electrostatic factors. The monomer is the biologically active form and the most “simple,” being comprised of merely two fibers (designated as A and B chains). These fibers – made up of a very precisely sequenced string of amino acids – are produced during glucose-induced insulin synthesis. Beta cell nuclei, upon receiving the signal that insulin is needed, generate transcribed copies of the genes encoding the A and B chains in the form of mRNA. Each mRNA provides the step-by-step instructions for making each respective fiber – kind of like the instructions you might receive to make your own yarn.

Remarkably, while the cell machinery (ribosomes, proteins) is synthesizing the A and B chains, other cellular tools (chaperone proteins) are looping, pleating, folding, and then tethering the two emerging fibers to one another. The nanotechnology of these machines is infinitely more impressive than our most technologically advanced textile looms. Even the logistics of the protein-generating process challenges our best human-engineered manufacturing circuits. Imagine a garment assembly line where a sheep is shorn, its wool is drawn into roving, spinners spin it into yarn, and handcrafters loop, pleat, fold, and stitch it into a sweater. This is analogous to what cell machines do when they synthesize insulin. And insulin is one of the “simpler” biological molecules produced in nature.

In yet another matter of interest, I had mentioned above that while making my rabbit, there were occasions where I miscounted stitches, had to rip stitches out, reexamine the pattern and re-stitch. Fortunately, in some cases the errors were small enough that I could simply leave them there with minimal impact on the shape of the final product. By this, one might conclude the crocheted rabbit represents a system with some “tolerance” for error. By contrast, when cells knit insulin, there is very little room for error; if a ribosome puts together a sequence of amino acids with but one or two substitutions that don’t belong, the resulting protein is non-functional. With amazing fidelity, cell machinery synthesizes insulin on an as-needed basis several times a day.

Finally, one crucial factor to bear in mind when comparing the process of crocheting a rabbit with that of insulin synthesis is the necessity of intelligent agency in the creation of insulin’s manufacturing logistics. Would we not consider one a fool if he suggested that a crocheted rabbit could spontaneously form in the absence of intelligent input (i.e., a pattern and skilled handiwork)? Yet, for a process that is far more complicated, we are asked to accept a purely materialistic explanation for its origin. As one who works intelligently with fibers, painstakingly and skillfully taming them into recognizable and functional forms, such a materialistic view appears to be a magician’s trick with a magic wand, pulling a live rabbit out of a hat.

has had a lifelong appreciation for science, teaching, and research. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno with a BS degree in molecular biology and a minor in cognitive psychology. As an undergraduate, she conducted summer research in immunology, microbiology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, scanning tunneling microscopy and genetics; she also published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and co-authored a chapter on scanning tunneling microscopy. She is currently completing a Master’s degree in Instructional Design and Technology at University of Cincinnati and a Certificate in Apologetics with the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Emily has had the joy of teaching high school chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, anatomy & physiology, and pre-engineering classes over the last thirteen years. As a former Darwinian evolutionist, Emily enjoys stating the case for intellectual agency, considering the arguments posited by the intelligent design movement as much more credible than those proffered by Darwinists.

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