Takedown of ENCODE’s claims that 80% of the human genome is functional

Those of us who are biologists with interests in genetics and genome biology were somewhat taken aback by ENCODE’s claim last year that around 80% of the human genome was functional, a claim that flew in the face of evidence that a very large proportion had no known function, and was regarded as ‘junk’. That this assertion essentially seemed to depend wholly on a novel definition of usage of the word ‘function’ seemed to escape those who jumped on the ‘death of junk DNA’ bandwagon.

What was completely obvious was that creationists, particularly those of the Intelligent Design variety would seize on such reports with alacrity. And so it proved. Indeed, in a recent C4ID mailing Alastair Noble (who’s doctorate is in Chemistry, not Biology) continued to trumpet the death of junk DNA – but only following a bizarre reference to a recent detective TV show, seemingly asserting that the show’s writers know science better than Brian Cox.

Now a group of scientists have published a paper that represents something of a takedown of ENCODE’s bizarre PR focussed claims (On the immortality of television sets: “function” in the human genome according to the evolution-free gospel of ENCODE). I’ll write more about this paper when I’ve finished reading it fully, but the abstract concludes:

The ENCODE results were predicted by one of its authors to necessitate the rewriting of textbooks. We agree, many textbooks dealing with marketing, mass-media hype, and public relations may well have to be rewritten.

Crikey. It’ll be interesting to see what ENCODE’s response will be, if any. My own view is that a substantial and valuable body of genome annotation was conducted by ENCODE, and it’s a shame it’s overshadowed by this one bizarre claim.

Will the Intelligent Design creationists take note? I doubt it.

Update/Postscript: I note this reference to Intelligent Design creationists near the end of the paper:

We urge biologists not be afraid of junk DNA. The only people that should be afraid are those claiming that natural processes are insufficient to explain life and that evolutionary theory should be supplemented or supplanted by an intelligent designer (e.g., Dembski 1998; Wells 2004). ENCODE’s take-home message that everything has a function implies purpose, and purpose is the only thing that evolution cannot provide. Needless to say, in light of our investigation of the ENCODE publication, it is safe to state that the news concerning the death of “junk DNA” have been greatly exaggerated.

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