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ATP Synthase motor


Just as every moving vehicle needs a driving motor or motors - so, apparently, do our bodies! In 1997, two scientists, Professor Paul Boyer (USA) and Dr John Walker (UK), were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize for painstakingly unravelling, over a period of many years, the secrets of `The Motor of Life'. This is an enzyme within our body's cells called an ATP Synthase, which is vital to life. Like any other motor it rotates, and surprisingly fast - in fact at about 6,000 revs per minute! Further, it is the last word in ultra-miniaturisation, being 200,000 times smaller than a pinhead! And we have rather more of these motors than most vehicles! Indeed, every cell in the body has hundreds, if not thousands of them. As we have some 100 trillion (1 followed by 14 zeros) cells, there are in excess of 10 quadrillion (1 followed by 16 zeros) of these amazing ultra-tiny little motors which drive our bodies and upon which our very lives depend! 

What it does

The ATP Synthase motor's job is to manufacture a little molecule called ATP - short for Adenosine triphosphate - which is of enormous importance for the successful functioning of our bodies. For example, as you read this, ATP is supplying the energy for the functioning of your brain, the beating of your heart and the contraction of your muscles! Similar to the release of energy stored in a compressed spring, so energy locked up in the ATP molecule, when triggered chemically, is released and made available to do work in our cells. Says Dr Walker, "We require our body weight in ATP every day. We are turning over that amount of ATP to keep ourselves thinking and walking around". At the extremes of activity, i.e. when resting, only half our body weight is required; when working hard, up to 1 ton is required! This enormous amount of APT is produced by those quadrillions of tiny ATP Synthase motors working so hard within our bodies to keep us going. In 1993, Professor Boyer correctly deduced by indirect means how ATP was produced, but it was left to Dr Walker to provide the first detailed picture of how the motor works by taking an atomic snapshot, using X-rays and an electron microscope, in 1997. 

How it is constructed

These incredibly tiny spinning motors are brilliantly designed and extremely complex. Each motor is built from 31 separate proteins which in turn are made up of 3,000 amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) thus making the ATP Synthase motor enzyme one of the largest and most complex biological molecules ever pictured. Just as every moving vehicle or manufacturing process needs a power source, so every cell contains a kind of cellular `battery' or `power pack' called a mitochondrion, and the ATP synthase motor forms part of the latter. The rotating part of the motor, consisting of C Protein sub-units, is embedded in the membrane of the mitochondrion. Projecting from the wheel, or rotor, and rotating with it, is the bent axle called a Gamma protein sub-unit. At its free end, this sub-unit engages with a `hat' - a ring of six protein sub-units: 3 Alpha and 3 Beta units. These do not rotate but are anchored to the membrane, rather like a pump attached to the flange of an electric motor. 

How it operates

This is how the ATP synthase motor produces ATP. The cell external to the mitochondrion contains the raw materials, consisting of ADP molecules, which when combined with phosphate, produce ATP. First, an ADP molecule enters one of the 3 Beta sub-units of the `hat' and combines with phosphate to produce an ATP molecule. A flow of protons (positively charged hydrogen nuclei) through the wheel of C proteins causes the wheel to rotate. As the bent axle rotates, it `wiggles' eccentrically, squashing each Beta sub-unit in turn, so that it can no longer grip the small ATP molecule. This results in the ATP molecule being ejected out from the mitochondrion and so into the cell. The process resembles the minting of coins - three `coins' of ATP being `minted' during each revolution of the wheel. Each of our quadrillions of ATP motors produces, on average, no less than 18,000 ATP molecule per minute, over 1 million per hour, some 26 million per day - less when resting, more when working hard. As the demand for energy increases, the flow of protons through the wheel increases, so turning the wheel faster and increasing the production of the energy-giving ATP. All this to keep our bodies and brains functioning, thus making our lives possible! And no wonder the ATP synthase motor is called `The Motor of Life'! As Dr Walker comments: "It is incredible to think of these motors of life spinning around in our bodies!" Of course, the same amazing ultra-miniature ATP synthase motors are spinning away in all living things, including plants and bacteria. In plants, the equivalent of mitochondrions, called chloroplasts, are the cellular `power plants' by which green plants convert sunlight into energy for growth. Of course, there are countless other wonderful, ingeniously designed structures and processes going on inside our bodies which we are blissfully unaware of because (in contrast to the comparatively clumsy and often noisy human designs) they are unobtrusive, silent and invisible to us, yet brilliantly efficient (in health, at least). 

What is our reaction?

How do we react to this amazing discovery of the quadrillions of tiny `motors of life' spinning around within us to keep us alive and active? David, the shepherd boy who later became King of Israel, exclaimed to God in one of his Psalms: "I will praise thee, for I am fearfully (or `awesomely') and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works ..." (139:14). How overwhelmingly true his statement is - even more so than he realised! His reaction was right! - what about ours? Do we lift up our hearts to praise our magnificent Creator God for making us so awesomely and wonderfully, or do we just take for granted all the supreme wonders of Creation within and around us, without a thought for, or one word of gratitude to our magnificent Creator God? The one verse of Shakespeare I remember best is: "Blow, blow thou winter wynd; thou art not so unkind as man's ingratitude"

"Darwin's Black Box"

Michael Behe's outstanding book Darwin's Black Box (The Free Press, 1996), a best-seller in the United States, seriously challenges the evolution hypothesis. Behe highlights some of the many structures and processes in the body which are `irreducibly complex', that is, where removal of one part of the structure or process would render it useless. Such systems have to be complete from the start or (like a car without a battery) they will never work, and would therefore be eliminated by natural selection and for which no simpler intermediate stages can be envisaged. Professor Behe takes as an example the mind-boggling complexity of the `blood-clotting' process which cascades into action when we cut ourselves. This book is essential reading for all concerned Christians and others who want to know the truth about evolution. The discovery of the amazing `Motor of Life' is, of course, one more very big nail in the coffin of evolution. 


It is quite preposterous, even naive, to suggest that such stunningly sophisticated, incredibly ingenious, staggeringly and irreducibly complex, ultra-miniaturised, brilliantly successful designs could merely be the result of blind, purposeless, unaided `chance', without the involvement of an intelligent mind! Such supremely brilliant designs, such as the ATP synthase `motor of life', the exceedingly complex blood-clotting mechanism and a thousand other wonders of the living world, far and away more complex and sophisticated than human designs - indeed the whole gamut of Creation from atoms to galaxies, from inanimate matter to intelligent life - could only be the work of a supremely intelligent Mind, an awesome, almighty, yet intensely Personal Designer-Creator God! 

We cannot do better than to meditate on these profound words from the Bible: 

Bernard A Reeves (April 1998)

Click for further reading, especially the ATP mechanism..

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