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Good Designs Gone Bad

Everything in God’s creation was originally “very good,” but now many microbes cause disease and death. What happened to change them into agents of harm? There are several possibilities, and finding the answer could save lives.

When my children were toddlers, it seemed to my wife and me that they were always sniffling or coughing, or fighting off a cold or the flu. Many a night was spent rocking a feverish child to sleep. The two of us viewed ordinary places such as the church nursery with fear as a breeding ground for infections.

My wife and I count our blessings, however, that our long nights were the only hardship we faced. Before the development of antibiotics and vaccines, infections were a leading cause of death among children. Most families lost at least one child to scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, measles, or smallpox.

Doctors now know that these maladies are caused by bacteria or viruses (collectively known as microbes). As scientists continue to learn more about microbes, they are discovering that microbes employ intricate mechanisms to attack the human body. This raises a question: If God finished creation in six days and declared it “very good,” where did these disease causing designs come from?

Finding the answer has great potential to help mankind. A better understanding of God’s original purpose for microbes could help scientists to see how they have changed and to find revolutionary new ways to treat infectious diseases.

Based on the creation account in Genesis, it appears that God originally made microbes to perform only beneficial functions. If so, one would expect many present-day bacteria to continue to perform their “very good” functions. Creation biologists predicted this and have documented examples.

What mechanism caused some microbes to go bad? Did God directly modify them, or did they change over time?

At least three possible changes may have occurred, or a combination of all three:

1. Displacement. Microbes were originally designed to perform beneficial functions in restricted places, but after the Fall they spread to other places and began to cause disruption and disease.

2. Modification. Microbes were physically modified to become pathogenic (disease-causing).

3. Uncontrolled growth. Their numbers were designed to remain within safe ranges, but now they fluctuate, causing either under- or overpopulation that results in disease and disruption of a once-balanced system.

Scripture hints at examples of helpful creations that have gone bad, such as thorns and thistles. Yeast is an example of a good thing that becomes invasive and harmful when it spreads too rapidly (see 1 Corinthians 5:6–8). In fact, yeast can cause severe infection, such as thrush and candidiasis in humans.

It seems that many microbes once had a good purpose but have changed as a result of the Fall and now cause disease.

Displaced Cholera. Cholera is a severe intestinal illness that humans get from contaminated water or food. It leads to severe diarrhea, shock, and even death. In its most virulent form, it can kill within three hours of infection.

Cholera is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholera, which produces a variety of toxins.

Interestingly, most species related to Vibrio cholera grow harmlessly on the surface of practically all shelled ocean creatures and some fish. There they perform a valuable task: breaking down chitin, the main component of the hard outside shell, or exoskeleton, of crabs, shrimp, lobsters, and many other sea creatures. Without their help, oceans and beaches would be littered with billions of shells. The breakdown of chitin also returns precious nutrients like carbon and nitrogen back to the ocean.

Even more fascinating, some of the cholera components that are toxic to the human intestines are used to break down chitin. So creationists hypothesize that Vibrio cholera originally broke down chitin in the ocean, but after Adam’s Fall, God allowed them to spread beyond their proper place.

Disease-causing versions of Vibrio cholera may also have been genetically modified after the Fall. We have discovered that they have some extra DNA, apparently inserted by viruses, which allows the bacteria to produce toxin. Other types of cholera lack this DNA and are typically nontoxic.

Modified E. coli. Another bacterium that appears to be modified is Escherichia coli. Normally, each person carries millions of harmless E. coli in their intestines, where it helps keep the digestive track running smoothly. E. coli is so intimately associated with the human body that health departments check for it when they want to confirm human activity in or near a waterway.

Unfortunately, viruses appear to have infected some E. coli and introduced their own DNA into the E. coli’s DNA. For instance, one strain of E. coli3 has an extra piece of DNA that produces lethal toxins. If you remove the offending DNA, you remove much of this bacterium’s disease-causing potential.

But why would E. coli carry a toxin in the first place? What was this toxin created to do? No one can say for sure, but we do know that this strain of E.coli lives harmlessly in the gut of farm animals, where it has been shown to help protect against cancer-causing viruses.4 So creationists hypothesize that the disease-causing abilities of this strain may have been acquired by  the displacement or modification of a harmless E. coli.

In recent years medical researchers have also discovered that beneficial E. coli may protect our intestines from disease-causing bacteria. In fact, some physicians are administering a strain of E. coli to “at-risk” newborns to shield the babies from diarrhea causing bacteria.

A DEADLY CHANGE. Most strains of E. coli bacteria are harmless. The strain that commonly causes lethal food poisoning contains an extra piece of DNA, not found in the harmless strains, which produces the deadly toxins. Creationists hypothesize that this strain may have acquired its disease-causing ability from viruses, which modified the bacteria’s original DNA.

1. The virus infects the bacterium and integrates its DNA into the bacterium’s DNA. The virus can stay there quietly for generations. The bacterium now has the ability to produce toxin.

2. Under the right stimulus, the viral DNA will leave the E. coli DNA, multiply rapidly, and increase production of toxins.

3. The bacterium now releases the deadly toxins and viruses.

New Treatment Ideas. This concept, that intestinal health depends on the presence of beneficial bacteria, forms the basis of an entirely new area of medicine called probiotics. Several over-the-counter products are now available that may help boost beneficial bacteria populations in the gut.

Also, a new theory in medicine, called the hygiene hypothesis, is based on this idea. The proposal is that humans should be exposed to microbes early in life; and if they are not, a variety of disease conditions may result, including asthma, multiple sclerosis, and colitis.

Scripture clearly shows that plants which now have thorns and thistles as a result of the Fall once had only good functions. Considering this example, Christians can begin to imagine how all of God’s creatures once had beneficial roles; and perhaps, in some cases, this knowledge can be used to fight disease.

At least one creation researcher is already investigating such ideas and is proposing ways in which certain bacteria can be used to fight cancer. This kind of medical treatment represents a very promising and exciting new area of research. Best of all, it flows from our understanding of God’s beneficent creation, which He graciously allows to persist in a fallen world.

Originally published in AnswersMagazine.Com July-Sept. 2009

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Dr. Joe Francis, Professor of Biological Sciences at Master’s College, earned hisPhD from Wayne State University and was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan Medical School. He serves as a board member of the Creation BiologyStudy Group.