A Non-Mechanical Example

A non-mechanical example of irreducible complexity can be seen in the sys- tem that targets proteins for delivery to subcellular compartments. In order to find their way to the compartments where they are needed to perform specialized tasks, certain proteins contain a special amino acid sequence near the beginning called a “signal sequence.”

As the proteins are being synthesized by ribosomes, a complex molecular assemblage called the signal recognition particle or SRP, binds to the signal sequence. This causes synthesis of the protein to halt temporarily. During the pause in protein synthesis the SRP is bound by the transmembrane SRP receptor, which causes protein synthesis to resume and which allows pas- sage of the protein into the interior of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). As the protein passes into the ER the signal sequence is cut off.

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For many proteins the ER is just a way station on their travels to their fi- nal destinations. Proteins which will end up in a lysosome are enzymatically “tagged” with a carbohydrate residue called mannose-6- phosphate while still in the ER. An area of the ER membrane then begins to concentrate several proteins; one protein, clathrin, forms a sort of geodesic dome called a coated vesicle which buds off from the ER. In the dome there is also a receptor protein which binds to both the clathrin and to the mannose- 6-phosphate group of the protein which is being transported. The coated vesicle then leaves the ER, travels through the cytoplasm, and binds to the lysosome through another specific receptor protein. Finally, in a maneuver involving several more proteins, the vesicle fuses with the lysosome and the protein arrives at its destination.

During its travels our protein interacted with dozens of macromolecules to achieve one purpose: its arrival in the lysosome. Virtually all components of the transport system are necessary for the system to operate, and there- fore the system is irreducible. And since all of the components of the system are comprised of single or several molecules, there are no black boxes to in- voke. The consequences of even a single gap in the transport chain can be seen in the hereditary defect known as I-cell disease. It results from a defi- ciency of the enzyme that places the mannose-6-phosphate on proteins to be targeted to the lysosomes. I-cell disease is characterized by progressive retardation, skeletal deformities, and early death.





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