Sunday, September 9, 2012

Oh Please

Photo: AP
This from Fergus Walsh of the BBC, Sept. 6, 2012, in an online article, “Detailed map of genome function”:

“They have found 80% of our genome is performing a specific function. Up to now, most attention has been focused on protein-coding genes, which make up just 2% of the genome.…

“The Encode team analysed the vast area of the genome sometimes called ‘junk DNA’ because it seemed to have little function and was poorly understood. Dr Ewan Birney, of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, who led the analysis, told me: ‘The term junk DNA must now be junked. ‘It's clear from this research that a far bigger part of the genome is biologically active than was previously thought.’"

I heard those estimates, too: 98% junk material; 90% junk. Whatever, a big percentage. Big number. Heard that a long time ago.

First time I heard it, I said, whoa, what are the chances of that being true? Zilch. Plain zilch. I was immediately brought back to statements made when I was a kid (okay, so that was a while ago): “only 10% of the brain is used; the other 90% is extra baggage, waiting to be used.” Even back then I was saying, holy crap, that doesn’t sound possible. A brain isn’t a vestigial organ, like, say, the appendix. And I couldn’t see evolution creating a big brain, hoping that it would get used some day. I couldn’t/can’t see evolution anticipating needs.

Nowadays, of course, nobody imagines there’s a non-functioning, anticipatory part of the brain. How silly.

So, when I heard similar numbers being tossed around about the human genome, my reaction was the same: bull-pucky. Couldn’t be. Couldn’t be that the operating manual for life was primarily a vestigial organ. Couldn’t be. Just couldn’t be. Did they really think that protein production was it? That all DNA had to do was to transfer protein instructions? How in the hell is the monarch butterfly’s route to Mexico encoded in protein manufacturing instructions? Didn’t they really think there was more to it than that? Didn’t anyone have an historical memory? I’m not that old. What sort of logic led them to that conclusion?

Which makes me disappointed that the discovery of 80% of the genome being active gets coverage. It’s the equivalent of 2+2=4 getting big press. Heck, I’m disappointed that they’re still implying that there’s a 20% waste. What do they think that 20% is doing, encoding the rules for card games?

It’s okay that they don’t know what the 20% is doing. It was okay that they didn’t know what the 80% was doing. Think of it, it was only a little while ago that we knew there was DNA, at all; so, that we don’t know all that it does is not surprising. It just seems arrogant to say, when one doesn’t know the function of something, to proclaim it useless. Especially something as important as the code of life. Wouldn’t it be more modest to at least feign ignorance rather than assuming that, if you can’t figure it out, it must have no purpose?

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