Bacterial Flagellum: Appearances Can be Deceiving

| By on Endless Forms Most Beautiful

If any symbol captures the spirit of the Intelligent Design movement, the bacterial flagellum is it. Beautiful artistic renderings so frequently adorn ID booksblogs, and videos that ID critic Ken Miller has called it the “‘poster-child’ of the modern anti-evolution movement.”

For many decades, the exquisite structure and function of the bacterial flagellum was unappreciated outside the scientific community. We can thank ID leader Michael Behe for changing that. His 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box introduced the world to the flagellum and at the same time exalted it an impassable obstacle to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Behe used the flagellum to illustrate his principle of irreducible complexity—the idea that some features of life are too complex to have developed gradually. These features, Behe argued, are best explained as the product of a Mind.

Today we’ll take a brief look at the flagellum and see why it remains such a powerful icon for the ID movement. In future posts we’ll consider whether the biology of the flagellum makes more sense in light of an evolutionary or a design paradigm.

What is the bacterial flagellum?

Bacteria typically live in aqueous (watery) environments and need to swim to find food and evade enemies. To accomplish this feat, they use a truly marvelous apparatus, the flagellum.

Bacterial flagella are long, whip-like tails protruding from a base tethered in the cell wall. The base contains a rotary motor powered by an electrochemical gradient: a mismatch in the concentration of hydrogen ions across the membrane provides the energy needed to power the motor. The strength of the gradient controls the speed of rotation; typically the propeller tail spins in the range of several hundred to a thousand RPM. As a result, bacteria can travel up to 60 cell lengths per second! The shape of the propeller and the ability of the rotor to change directions allow the bacterium to either swim in a precise direction or randomly tumble to reorient when needed. The number and arrangement of flagella can vary dramatically by species, yielding great diversity in the way bacteria get around, but the basic unit is the same.

While the cartoon above makes the flagellum look simple enough, in reality the machine is quite complicated. Just like an outboard motor, the flagellum has a rotating element (rotor) and a stationary element (stator) embedded in the cell wall and membrane. These elements are connected to the flexible filament by a hook (see cartoon at left). The parts list for these three components includes about 40 different proteins.

A powerful analogy

Why do some argue that the bacterial flagellum is the product of intelligent design rather than evolution? For starters, it looks like something known to be designed—the outboard motor. ID proponents like Behe are not alone in recognizing the parallel. In 1998, structural biologist David DeRosier marveled, “more so than other motors, the flagellum resembles a machine designed by a human.”

The resemblance is so striking, we find it difficult to resist extending the analogy to how the flagellum originated. We know that all outboard motors are designed by intelligent engineers; the parts are carefully crafted to work together for an intended purpose. The bacterial flagellum also has many well-matched components. Together they perform the same job as the outboard motor—swimming. Since the flagellum wasn’t designed by human engineers, it seems only reasonable to infer that it was designed by Someone Else.

But appearances can be deceiving. Look carefully at the photograph below:

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? A light wind blows playfully, rustling the tall grass. The red rocks in the distance radiate heat from the day. I’d love to be there to watch the clouds unfurl in all the majesty of a prairie sunset.

The only problem is, the place doesn’t exist. This piece of art is not a digitally altered photo, or even a realistic-looking painting. It’s a real scene in miniature, created by 26-year-old artist Matthew Albanese out of faux fur (for the grass), cotton wool (clouds) and tile grout (rocks).

Don’t believe me? If you watched Albanese in action, you would immediately understand how he created this amazing image. Check out his studio setup for making realistic cloud images from a suspended tuft of cotton:

What does this have to do with the bacterial flagellum?

The example above illustrates how deceptive appearances can be. The landscape in the photograph appears to be entirely natural, but every detail is meticulously designed. In contrast, the bacterial flagellum looks entirelyunnatural. It seems much too complicated to have arisen through random mutation and natural selection. Yet as we will see in future posts, even the most iconic irreducibly complex system, the bacterial flagellum, can be understood in light of these evolutionary processes.

It’s worth pointing out that understanding the creative process magnifies, rather than diminishes, the work of the artist. I don’t imagine many people fly into a rage when they learn how Matthew Albanese creates his beautiful photographs. Rather than feel deceived, they feel amazed! In the same way, when we see how God created all the marvelous forms of life through an extended dance of natural processes—his laws—the appropriate reaction is not dismay, but worship.


About the Author

Kathryn Applegate

Kathryn Applegate is Program Director at BioLogos. She received her PhD in computational cell biology at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. At Scripps, she developed computer vision software tools for analyzing the cell's infrastructure, the cytoskeleton. 

More posts by Kathryn Applegate