Ah … Chemistry! – Part 1

| December 23, 2020 | 0 Comments

Introduction

I will tell you up front that I do not know where this article will go. It may turn into a series of articles. (Later: It did.) All I can tell you for the moment is that I was befuddled about how people can claim to modify a strand of DNA, when DNA has never even been seen with even the best of optical microscopes. Do you realize how tiny a strand of DNA is? They can vary in length, but in width they are about 3/1,000,000,000 of a meter. In inches, that would be about 1/100,000,000.

We as Christians can begin to fear science. In my studies of science, I have been led to worship more than to unbelief. I will tell you beforehand that this little study into chemistry has left me worshipping the Master Chemist. Those who fail to see God in chemistry have probably already decided that He doesn’t exist before they begin studying chemistry, usually because of philosophical positions. The more one studies the natural world and its marvels, the stronger the impulse to believe that something above nature is involved, something super-natural.

Low overhead home business, anyone?

Conservative Anabaptists are known for their continual quest to come up with some kind of home business. This is because they value family time and the possibility of using their businesses to instill a good work ethic directly into their children in very practical ways. Industrialization has almost killed the family farm, so we have seen a proliferation of mini-barn building, trailer manufacturing, sawmilling, woodworking, and similar home-based businesses.

May I inform you of a home business that only needs an investment of a few hundred dollars in equipment, yet has the potential to earn millions of dollars? Any takers on the offer?

Try gene editing. That’s right! Imagine my shock to find that the equipment necessary to make a genetic modification only costs a couple hundred dollars!

Now my curiosity was really stirred. As mentioned, a strand of DNA is only about 1/100,000,000 of an inch wide, and all you need is a few hundred dollars of equipment to be able to modify it? Typical graphics that try to explain DNA modification often show a pair of scissors snipping out a section of DNA, then another section being plopped into the missing section. That is simple to understand; I have done exactly that on different vehicles that I bought, wrecked and rusted, then repaired. I cut out the crinkled or rusted spot, then welded in a patch. Simple.

But how do you snip a section of DNA that is only 1/100,000,000 of an inch wide? Tiny scissors, please?

Obviously, those graphics showing a tiny scissors are symbolic. And, there is more investment cost than the lab equipment to start DNA editing, meaning that you have to know what you are doing. This is not knowledge that you can gain by browsing through Wikipedia articles, borrowing a book from the local library, or reading this very brief article. For this reason, do not expect to see a hand-painted sign at the end of Mark Mennonite or Aaron Amish’s lane that says, “Genetic modification services – No Sunday Sales.”

On the other hand, the ability to perform genetic modifications with just a few hundred dollars of lab equipment does concern some scientists. If genetic modification required a $500,000 machine, then it would be relatively easy to keep track of who may be trying to manipulate genetics for malicious purposes; anyone who ordered the machine could be held accountable for its use. As it is, once someone learns the technique, he could theoretically begin to introduce malicious genetic modifications into the world with minimal equipment. Imagine some killer virus being concocted and then spread around. This is a reality of which we need to be aware when considering the whole context of genetic modification. In other words, it is a lot easier to modify DNA than to build a nuclear bomb.

How to modify DNA

Ah! Do you expect me to tell you the secret of making a genetic modification? Of course I cannot, although it may be simpler than what you think. I will try to outline the process, but we must first take a crash course in chemistry.

I had the option of chemistry class in high school, but even though it sounded interesting I took practically all my electives down at the Industrial Arts end of the school. So here I am, more than half a century old and for the first time in my life taking a serious look at the periodic table.

What is a chemical?

A good brother in Christ who was a produce farmer advertised his produce as “Chemical Free Produce.” I just let out an audible chuckle as I typed that. I know what he meant, but do we realize that every physical thing in the world is made up of chemicals? Have you ever seen the list of chemical compounds that make up an apple? I have, years ago. If you ever see such a list, it may make you want to never put an apple in your mouth again!

Fear! We fear chemicals! They are bad stuff, right? Sometimes necessary, but almost always negative, right?

Let me repeat: everything that is physical on earth is a chemical compound. The carrots that the above-mentioned produce grower grew were nothing more and nothing less than a composite of about two dozen chemical elements.

So, let’s be charitable to him and realize that he meant that he did not apply any chemicals to his chemicals that he calls vegetables. Chuckle again!

Have you ever applied dihydrogen monoxide to your garden? You probably have. May I list some of the warnings that have been given about this chemical?

Dihydrogen monoxide:

  • is also known as hydroxyl acid and is the major component of acid rain.
  • contributes to the “greenhouse effect.”
  • may cause severe burns.
  • contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
  • accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
  • may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.

Despite the danger, dihydrogen monoxide is often used:

  • as an industrial solvent and coolant.
  • in nuclear power plants.
  • in the production of Styrofoam.
  • as a fire retardant.
  • in many forms of cruel animal research.
  • in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing, produce remains contaminated by this chemical.
  • as an additive in certain “junk foods” and other food products.

Do you get the joke? Dihydrogen monoxide is a scientific name for H2O, which we normally call water. You cannot honestly say that you do not apply a potentially dangerous chemical to your carrots if you water them!

My point is that everything physical on earth is a chemical compound. If we are going to fear using chemicals, then we need to fear water, milk, salt, and honey … and everything else around us. Let me pound it into your brain: everything physical on earth is a chemical compound.

So now that we have established that carrots are chemical compounds, and to water your carrots is to apply a chemical to them, does that mean we can safely dump any odd chemical compound on carrots without any negative effect? Of course not. If you dump a strong dose of the chemical compound called hydrogen peroxide on your carrots, you can expect a crop failure. Yet hydrogen peroxide is a naturally-occurring chemical compound, something man has found on earth and learned how to replicate in a laboratory. What about applying the chemical compound called manure? The same warning applies: if you put too much on, expect a crop failure.

Ah… chemistry!

Every Anabaptist mother in her kitchen is a mini-chemist when she mixes up her concoctions that we call biscuits. Depending on the variation of flour, oil, salt, water, and sugar (all of which are chemicals), she gets a different texture and taste. Add a bit of honey, bacon grease, or cheese (all of which are chemicals) and she can get a bit of flare in the flavor. Add too much of one of the chemicals, and she may dump her chemical concoction to the dogs rather than put it on the table for her family.

Do you get my point? Chemicals are not all bad. Chemistry is a part of our everyday life, and without understanding some basic chemistry and applying it to our life, we are all going to die rather quickly. Or at least eat some less-than-tasty biscuits perhaps.

Ah … chemistry!

Anabaptist Andy, the chemist

We are going to create a persona that we are going to name Anabaptist Andy. Since he is only a persona, and not a physical person, he is not a chemical compound.

Andy wants to start his own business and decides that he would like to be chemist. Sometime in the future he will try his hand at editing DNA (which, I forewarn you, is nothing more and nothing less than a string of chemicals that are attached to each other), but for now he will start with the simpler stuff. So, Andy gets himself a periodic table, which lists all the known elements.

 

Hmmm. That looks a bit overwhelming. An element is a chemical in its pure state. In other words, one single atom, unmixed with any other atom. In the upper left corner box with a number 1, you see H, which stands for hydrogen. Hydrogen is one of the elements of the chemical compound H2O, which we call water. If you look at number 8, in the upper right side of the table, you see O, which stands for oxygen. So, our H2O chemical is a mixture of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The number 2 in H2O means just that: 2 atoms of hydrogen. Since the O has no numeral subscripted, it means that only one of that element is present. So, we learn that our first chemical concoction is two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen.

Brainstorm!

Anabaptist Andy decides that if he could only make some water in desert places, he could make the desert land become fruitful. So, if he would buy ten acres of desert land for $5/acre and make some H2O to irrigate this cheap land, he could then sell the land as high-dollar irrigated farmland, maybe at $10,000/acre.

So, he now knows that to create H2O he needs to buy some hydrogen and some oxygen, mix them together, and get the land irrigated and growing some good produce so that he can resell the land at a good markup.

But Andy runs into his first chemical problem. When he mixes his two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen together, they do not create water. Rather, he only has a container of hydrogen and oxygen swirling together, like a bucket of oil and water that doesn’t mix. He stirs it. He shakes it. He lets it sit for a week. His elements still refuse to make water.

Then Andy reads the chemistry books and realizes that just mixing two elements in the same container does not make them bond at the atomic level, just like mixing oil and water in the same tank does not make them bond. The secret to making H2O from hydrogen and oxygen is to add some heat.

So, Andy adds some heat to his mixture, and BOOOOOM! Yes, now he has water! But the process of binding the hydrogen atoms to the oxygen atoms releases tremendous amounts of heat and energy, and Anabaptist Andy realizes too late that his big beard and eyebrows are singed away, the windows of his lab have been blown out, and that the neighbors have called 911 reporting a loud boom somewhere in the vicinity of Anabaptist Andy’s house.

Thus dies Andy’s brainstorm. Yes, water can be made from joining two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, with some heat added to make the two elements bond at the atomic level. But Andy now realizes that it is much cheaper and more efficient to build a pipeline or canal to his ten acres of desert land than to try to irrigate the land with water made in the lab.

Brainstorm #2

Despite the failure of his brainstorm, Anabaptist Andy has also just learned the secret behind what is called hydrogen cell engines. If that tremendous amount of heat and energy that produced that tremendous boom, blew his windows out, and singed his eyebrows and beard away could just be harnessed correctly, perhaps it could drive a sawmill on the 10 acres. After all, the only thing that would come out the tailpipe of a hydrogen cell motor is dihydrogen monoxide … H2O. Which by now you know is the chemical that we call water.

Maybe he could even use the exhaust pipe from the hydrogen cell engine on his sawmill to water a small garden of chemical compounds (also called vegetables) on his ten acres of chemical compounds (also called dirt)!

Ah … chemistry!

~Mike Atnip

In Part 2 we will journey with Anabaptist Andy as he expands his lab into the 25 essential elements of life.

PS: I was just outside hanging some laundry, but some chemicals blowing about were causing me some grief. The nitrogen and oxygen (chemicals which make up 99% of what we call wind; argon, carbon dioxide, neon, helium, and methane make up most of the other 1%) were blowing along at about 25 mph, causing some of the laundry to come off the line. The chemical composition of the metal springs in the clothespins was not the best quality, making the pins unequal to their task of holding on the laundry (which is made up of chemicals called cotton, etc.), which was flapping in the nitrogen and oxygen rushing by.

Ah … chemistry!

 

Tags:

Category: Public

Leave a Reply