The Most Ancient of Scrolls
When I was in college, I remember learning that some scholars believed that the Book of Job was the oldest literary text known to man, probably dating to 1500-2000 BCE. Of course, we don’t have any original manuscripts going back that far, but that is a pretty amazing thought.
Some of the oldest scrolls we do have were found rather recently in cliff caves along the Dead Sea. It has been estimated that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written as far back as five centuries before the time of Christ and they were hidden in the Qumran Caves until the 1940s when a Bedouin shepherd boy stumbled upon them quite by accident while searching for a lost goat.
But whether we’re talking about the Book of Job or the Dead Sea Scrolls, God has been writing these communiqués to humanity for an awfully long time!
In roughly the same era as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, from the late 1920s through the 1950s, scientists were on an intense search for the most ancient of manuscripts, the instruction manual for biological life!
In 1928, British scientist Frederick Griffith demonstrated that living cells contained some sort of instruction manual inside them that directed them to carry out their life functions. To understand this first crucial experiment, we need a quick lesson in bacteria. Streptococcus bacteria (think strep infections) naturally come in two forms: type S Streptococcus coats itself in a slimy, snotty layer called a capsule that protects it from being discovered by our immune system, thus allowing it to cause significant disease. Type R Streptococcus, on the other hand, does not make a capsule and therefore does a poor job of infecting us. Are you with me so far?
Griffith wanted to know how type S Streptococcus “knew” how to make a capsule, while type R did not. In a series of beautifully designed experiments, he found that he could take a collection of biochemicals from the cytoplasm (the guts) of type S Streptococcus (the type that does make the capsule and does cause infections), mix it up with the type R bacteria, and it would give type R the ability to also produce the capsule and likewise also cause disease. This transformation principle, as he called it, must have contained the information necessary to instruct the type R bacteria in the process of making a capsule.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that a team of American scientists at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, led by Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod, and Maclyn McCarty, finally pinpointed exactly which chemical substance it was in the cell that gave instructions for life functions. The large, complex chemical known as deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, was, for the first time, recognized to be the language of biological life!
So, how exactly does a chemical provide instructions to a living organism? That’s a good question, and it will take some time to unravel. But the answer begins with the actual structure of DNA.
A single DNA molecule is a polymer, a string of subunits linked together into a long chain. Imagine a pearl necklace. Or better yet, rail cars linked together to make a train. But imagine there are four different varieties of rail cars, each a different color, maybe blue, green, yellow, and red. A particularly artistic conductor could order the cars in an abundance of arrangements simply by rearranging their order. An exceptionally clever conductor could even send secret messages to his buddies along the line based on the patterns of cars. Blue-blue-red-blue-yellow-green-yellow might mean “the wife is out of town and I’ll meet you at the pub at 9 pm.”
Now, of course, we’re not interested in trains and clandestine messages to drinking buddies. But we want to know about the stuff that tells a daisy how to be yellow, and when to germinate, and how to attract pollinators. In a DNA molecule, individual subunits called nucleotides are strung together in patterns that give the cell critical information for how to carry out life’s functions. And like our four-colored train metaphor above, there are four different nucleotides in a DNA molecule.
The four nucleotides, abbreviated A, T, C, and G for short, can be arranged in nearly limitless combinations to convey biological information.
Now, if you’re paying attention, you might be wondering how an alphabet of only four letters can be an effective basis for communication. But consider this simple fact: the average gene (a single “word” or instruction in DNA language) is about 1,500 nucleotides in length. With four possible nucleotides (letters) in each of 1,500 positions, there are 41500 combinations possible. That’s equivalent to 10900, or a 1 with about 900 zeros after it! Are you with me? By comparison, physicists believe there are only about 1021 stars in the entire universe!
We’ll talk more about DNA in the weeks to come. But the bottom line about the most ancient of scrolls is that its author created a language that is practically limitless in its power for communicating biological instructions. Do you have goosebumps yet? You should!
Questions for thought
Has it ever occurred to you that DNA represents possibly the oldest known manuscripts on the planet? And their author is none other than the Creator Himself?
How does this information, namely that your entire instruction manual was written by God, affect the way that you view yourself?
Creator God, you are truly the author of life, both biological life and spiritual life. We have no response but awe and humility when we ponder the language of DNA that in one breath you use to create mosquitos and in another to create humans. And yet you chose to create us in your image as spiritual beings, capable of great good and equally great evil. But most importantly, capable of loving and obeying you. As we understand our biological foundation, let us never lose sight of your unique plan for mankind and your invitation to eternal fellowship. Amen.