ENCODE, junk DNA and creationists

I see the ignorant, stupid, devious and downright dishonest within the creationist cohorts have been joined by the Centre For Intelligent Design, which is delighted by the junk DNA misinformation circulating in the media. I received an email from C4ID’s Dr Alastair Noble:

Who would have thought it? ‘Junk’ DNA, the widely-promoted ‘killer’ argument for Neo-Darwinian evolution, bites the dust.

No less an authority than the Cambridge-based European Bioinformatics Institute tells us that ‘junk’ DNA is no longer an accurate representation of the situation and that very much more of DNA than was thought contains active genetic information. But Intelligent Design theorists have been suggesting for some time that 98% or so of junk in DNA seemed unlikely. Maybe ID can make accurate scientific predictions after all!

You must hear Dr Doug Axe (Seattle) and Prof John Lennox (Oxford) discuss these and related matters at the Centre for Intelligent Design’s conference at Malvern on September 28/29th.

Unfortunately, being a chemist with a brief research career several decades ago (and with the distinct need to demonstrate a creator) has not left Alastair Noble’s abilities to comprehend science in good stead, and he’s had to rely on various media sources regurgitating a simplistic rewrite of molecular biology history coupled with an equally uncritical definition of the word ‘function’, as used by ENCODE. I suppose another factor has been the woeful public relations train wreck that the ENCODE mass publication has become. Regarding this whole debacle, there’s been quite a bit of discussion around the blogosphere. ( My own genome science background relates to the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster - while this shares many of the “junk” features of the human genome, they are less marked.)

Probably leading the charge against the ENCODE PR has been Larry Moran (Sandwalk), who has seen it as inadvertently shoring up Intelligent Design creationism. Sandwalk has featured problems with the reporting of ENCODE on a almost daily basis. As Larry Moran observes

Is this what science is going to be like in the future—the person with the biggest advertising budget wins the scientific debate?

Several blogs have touched on the ‘junk DNA’ matter. T. Ryan Gregory has made several postings at Genomicron explaining exactly what is wrong with ENCODE’s public statements of “80% Functional” – see for example ENCODE (2012) vs. Comings (1972). He also has a list of major news outlets who’ve uncritically regurgitated stories about the death of junk DNA (The ENCODE media hype machine).  Over at Cryptogenomicon, Sean Eddy has ENCODE says what? outlining in considerable detail exactly what’s wrong with the claims that 80%  (or even more) of the human genome has an identified function.

Ars Technica have an extremely well written overview of the ENCODE PR debacle, Most of what you read was wrong: how press releases rewrote scientific history.

It is a great shame that commentators such as Alastair Noble don’t know enough of the history of molecular biology, or indeed enough of the complexity of the typical eukaryotic genome to take a more critical view of the mass media’s simplistic take-home message of ENCODE, merely repeating the inaccuracy in the delighted but mistaken belief that it shores up their creationist (ID or otherwise) beliefs.

If you have an iPad, I can recommend the Nature ENCODE app, which makes it clear that the 30 or so papers simultaneously published last week don’t exist merely to back up the bizarre and inaccurate (both scientifically and historically) claim to have overturned some junk DNA paradigm, but rather represent a detailed characterisation of human genome structure, mapping out a wide variety of genome modifications often associated with gene activity. Projects such as ENCODE yield huge data sets that aren’t themselves necessarily interesting to individual scientists, but which provide the basis for considerable future investigations.

Alastair Noble referred to Intelligent Design theorists. Well that’ll be because Intelligent Design creationists don’t actually do experiments. And were they to honestly interpret the literature, they’d see that junk DNA is very real in the human genome. What’s God the designer got against salamanders and amoebae? Why favour puffer fish with a particularly economical genome?

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