Monday, December 30, 2013

1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think - "Not-junk DNA"

Glenn Branch of NCSE alerted me to this book: 1001 Ideas the Changed the Way We Think. He wrote some of the articles [see Creationism and Evolution in 1001 Ideas].

The last great idea that changed the way we think (#1001) is written by Simon Adams, a "historian and writer living and working in London." Simon Adams thinks that the discovery that most of our genome is not junk counts as a big idea. To his credit, Glenn Branch realizes that this is somewhat controversial.

That's putting it mildly. Knowledgeable scientists agree that most (~90%) of our DNA is junk in spite of what the ENCODE publicity campaign might have said back in September 2012. I'm reproducing the article that Simon Adams wrote to show you just how successful that publicity campaign was and how difficult it is for the corrections and rebuttals to make an impact on a gullible public. With apologies to Glenn, whose articles are probably accurate, you should not buy a book that makes such a serious mistake by allowing an amateur to write about genomes, a subject he knows nothing about.
Far more of the human genome has vital functions than was first realized

The ribbons of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in our cells carry instructions for building proteins and thus continuing life, but it was long believed that stretches of them are useless. The idea of "junk DNA" was first formulated by the Japanese-American geneticist Susumu Ohno (1928-2000), writing in the Brookhaven Symposium in Biology in 1972. He argued that the human genome can only sustain a very limited number of genes and that, for the rest, "the importance of doing nothing" was crucial. In effect, he dismissed 98 percent of the total genetic sequence that lies between the 20,000 or so protein-coding genes.

Yet scientists always thought that such junk must have a purpose. And indeed, a breakthrough in 2012 revealed that this junk is in fact crucial to the way our human genome, that is the complete set of genetic information in our cells, actually works.

After mapping of the entire human genome was completed in 2003, scientists focused on the so-called junk DNA. Nine years later, in 2012, the international ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) project published the largest single genome update in Nature and other journals. It found that, far from useless, the so-called junk contained 10,000 genes—around 18% of the total—that help control how the protein-coding genes work. Also found were 4 million regulatory switches that turn genes on and off (it is the failure of these switches that leads to diseases such as type 2 diabetes and Crohn's disease). In total, ENCODE predicted that up to 80 percent of our DNA has some sort of biochemical function.

The discovery of these functioning genes will help scientists to understand common diseases and also to explain why diseases affect some people and not others. If that can be achieved, drugs can be devised to treat those diseases. Much work still needs to be done, but the breakthrough has been made.
The editor of this book is Robert Arp, a philosopher specializing in the philosophy of biology and evolutionary psychology. I assume that he approved of the article by Simon Adams, which means that even philosophers of biology were duped by the ENCODE leaders.1

The book was published on Oct. 29, 2013. That means there was plenty of time to read the critiques of the ENCODE publicity campaign and even the scientific articles that were published last winter and early spring. There's really no excuse for making such a mistake.