Catherine Shaffer is a science writer who describes herself like this on her website,
I am a writer specializing in biotechnology, genetics, genomics, and other molecular, biological sciences. I have experience with news and features. My strengths include a meticulous attention to detail, an absolutely fanatical devotion to scientific accuracy, and enthusiasm. Readers appreciate my clean, uncluttered prose; my crisp, novelistic style; and (sometimes) my zany sense of humor. I am a writer who always meets deadlines and is organized and dependable.She has written an article for WIRED on junk DNA [One Scientist's Junk Is a Creationist's Treasure]. Here's how the article begins,
I studied biochemistry at the graduate level at the University of Michigan, and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for several years. I am especially knowledgeable about genomics, proteomics, biotechnology, drug discovery, and chromatographic separations.
Without your "junk DNA" you might be reading this article while hanging upside down by your tail.Hmmmm ... This is so confused that it's difficult to know where to begin. First, the connection between my junk DNA and whether I am an opossum completely escapes me. I don't know of any credible scientist who claims that it's changes in junk DNA that makes us so different from the common ancestor of opossums. (And none who claim that we are descended from opossums.)
That's one of the key findings of the opossum genome-sequencing project, and a surprising group is embracing the results: intelligent-design advocates. Since the early '70s, many scientists have believed that a large amount of many organisms' DNA is useless junk. But recently, genome researchers are finding that these "noncoding" genome regions are responsible for important biological functions.
The opossum data revealed that more than 95 percent of the evolutionary genetic changes in humans since the split with a common human-possum ancestor occurred in the "junk" regions of the genome. Creationists say it's also evidence that God created all life, because God does not create junk. Nothing in creation, they say, was left to chance.
"It is a confirmation of a natural empirical prediction or expectation of the theory of intelligent design, and it disconfirms the neo-Darwinian hypothesis," said Stephen Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.
Advocates like Meyer are increasingly latching onto scientific evidence to support the theory of intelligent design, a modern arm of creationism that claims life is not the result of natural selection but of an intelligent creator. Most scientists believe that intelligent design is not science. But Meyer says the opossum data supports intelligent design's prediction that junk DNA sequences aren't random, but important genetic material. It's an argument Meyer makes in his yet-to-be-published manuscript, The DNA Enigma.
Second, the implication that most junk DNA is turning out to have a function is completely false and the confusion about the difference between junk DNA and noncoding DNA is inexcusable from someone who claims to be an expert on genomics [see Noncoding DNA and Junk DNA, The Deflated Ego Problem].
Third, the idea that large amounts of evolution in junk DNA supports Intelligent Design Creationism is crazy. But, in fairness, I don't think Shaffer is making the connection between the sequence variation and Intelligent Design Creationism; instead, she's making the (factually incorrect) connection between the discovery of some functions in noncoding, nonjunk, DNA and Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC). I think Steve Meyer is suggesting that IDC predicts that junk DNA will have a function and that's why he's being quoted
Scientists have made several discoveries about what some call the "dark matter of the genome" in recent years, but they say the research holds up the theory of natural selection rather than creationism.When sequences in noncoding DNA are conserved, this is taken as evidence of negative selection. In that sense, it supports the theory of natural selection. However, most of the sequence comparisons show that junk DNA is not conserved. This does not support the theory of natural selection. It supports Neutral Theory and the mechanism of evolution by random genetic drift.
The article then describes one recent study suggesting that some noncoding DNA is not junk (Lowe et al. 2007). It appears to be the justification for writing the article since it compares short stretches of sequences in the human and opossum genomes. This is not news so I won't bother commenting.
With scientists increasingly believing that so-called junk DNA regulates other genes, among other functions, creationists like Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and author of the controversial new book on intelligent design, The Edge of Evolution, are more than happy to point out their errors.The concept of junk DNA is not based on ignorance in spite of what the IDiots say. It's based on good scientific evidence and deduction. Of course most IDiots wouldn't recognize scientific evidence even if it bit them on the ...
"From the very beginning Darwinism thought whatever it didn't understand must be simple, must be nonfunctional," Behe said. "It's only in retrospect that Darwinists try to fit that into their theory."
Is this just a way of getting in another quote from a prominent advocate of Intelligent Design Creationism? Why is Shaffer so interested in the IDiots? This seems to be more than just seeking out controversy since the proper way to do that would be to interview real scientists who can put the work into perspective and comment on it's significance (see below).
Part of the difficulty in studying junk DNA is that it's impossible to prove a negative, i.e., that any particular DNA does not have a function.That's how a real scientist speaks [see A word about "junk DNA" and Comments on "Noncoding DNA and Junk DNA"].
That's why T. Ryan Gregory, an assistant professor in biology at the University of Guelph, believes that nonfunctional should be the default assumption. "Function at the organism level is something that requires evidence," he said.
This is getting to be a familiar pattern among science writers. Many of them seem to be incapable of sorting out the actual science from the rhetoric. In this case the problem is exacerbated by introducing IDiots as though their opinion had a bearing on the subject. Not only that, the poor science writing stands in sharp contrast to the claim that, "My strengths include a meticulous attention to detail, an absolutely fanatical devotion to scientific accuracy, and enthusiasm."
Lowe, C.B., Bejerano, G. and Haussler, D. (2007) Thousands of human mobile element fragments undergo strong purifying selection near developmental genes. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 104:8005-8010. [PubMed]