Saturday, October 26, 2013

How to Turn a Simple Paper into a Scientific Breakthrough: Mention Junk DNA

Attanasio et al. (2013) published a paper in Science where they identified several thousand possible enhancers that were active in the facial area of developing mouse embryos. About 200 of them appear to be controlling genes that determine the size and shape of the face. (Recall that there are about 20,000 protein-encoding genes in mammals.)

Lynn Yarris of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California (USA) wrote up the press release [What is it About Your Face?]. It's a really good press release that fairly represents the published work and explains some of the significance. There's no mention of junk DNA in the press release or the published paper.

This is what it looks like when science correspondent Alok Jha published it in The Guardian.
Faces are sculpted by 'junk DNA'

Though everybody's face is unique, the actual differences are relatively subtle. What distinguishes us is the exact size and position of things like the nose, forehead or lips. Scientists know that our DNA contains instructions on how to build our faces, but until now they have not known exactly how it accomplishes this.

Visel's team was particularly interested in the portion of the genome that does not encode for proteins – until recently nicknamed "junk" DNA – but which comprises around 98% of our genomes. In experiments using embryonic tissue from mice, where the structures that make up the face are in active development, Visel's team identified more than 4,300 regions of the genome that regulate the behaviour of the specific genes that code for facial features.
It's pretty clear that science correspondent Alok Jha doesn't understand what he's writing and it's about time we started publicizing the names of those science writers who mislead the public about science. The consensus among knowledgeable scientists is that at least 80-90% of our genome is junk. It's time for science writers to admit that the science favors junk.

Scientists have known for decades that a lot of noncoding DNA is functional. The idea that all noncoding DNA (98%) is junk is false. No knowledgeable scientist ever made such a claim. It is a myth perpetuated, in part, by ignorant science writers; albeit, aided and abetted by ignorant scientists. Scientists have known for fifty (50!!) years that gene expression is controlled by regulatory sequences in noncoding DNA. Scientists have known for at least that length of time that during embryogenesis different genes are turned on and off and that this is due, in part, to binding of transcription factors to those regulatory sequences (enhancers). Scientists have known for one hundred years that the morphological features of mammals, including humans, are controlled by genes.

Move along folks. There's nothing to see here.

Attanasio, C. et al. (2013) Fine Tuning of Craniofacial Morphology by Distant-Acting Enhancers. Science 342: Oct. 25, 2013 [doi: 10.1126/science.1241006]