On October 1, 2007 I praised SEED magazine for being one of the few science magazines to correctly define the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. Here's what I said two months ago.
One of my pet peeves is the misuse of the term "Central Dogma of Molecular Biology" [Basic Concepts: The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology]. Most people define it as the flow of information from DNA to RNA to protein. Many then go on to declare that the Central Dogma has been overthrown because of reverse transcriptase, alternative splicing, microRNA, epigenetics, or whatever.
This month's issue of SEED has a tear-out summary (cribsheet) of "Genetics." In one of the boxes titled "The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology" there's a drawing of the major pathways of information flow [Cribsheet #12]. The caption says.There are nine ways information can theoretically flow between DNA, RNA, and protein. Of these, three are seen throughout nature, DNA to DNA (replication), DNA to RNA (transcription), and RNA to protein (translation). Three more are known to occur in special circumstances like viruses or laboratory experiments (RNA to RNA, RNA to DNA, and DNA to protein). Flows of information from protein have not been observed. The trend is clear: information flow from DNA or RNA into protein is irreversible. This is known as the "central dogma," and forms the foundation of molecular biology.Yeah! As far as I know this is the only popular magazine to get it right.
I take it all back.
This month's issue has an article by Philip Ball outlining another revolution in molecular biology that overthrows the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. This time it's microRNAs that have done the dirty deed [Redefining Genes].
Philip Ball is a London (UK) based freelance science writer with a Ph.D. in Physics. He has written 10 books on science and many articles for the news section of Nature. Philip Ball blogs at homunculus.
Here's what he says on page 29 of the current newsstand issue of SEED.
For nearly 50 years, the central dogma of molecular biology has been that genetic information is contained within DNA and is passed by rote transcription through RNA to make proteins. ...Philip Ball then gives two recent examples of work showing the involvement of noncoding RNA in gene expression. Then comes the revolution ...
The central dogma is being eroded, and it now appears as if DNA's cousin, the humble intermediary RNA, plays at least an equal role in genetics and the evolution of the species.
These and a host of other recent findings are rewriting the textbooks of molecular biology. They are beginning to show not only that RNA is more fundamental to genetics than once believed, but also that it can directly affect evolution and elucidate the differences between species. The result is a story that looks a lot messier, but potentially a lot more interesting, than anyone ever guessed.This is deeply insulting to all biochemists and molecular biologists. What in the world must people like Ball be thinking of us when he writes such nonsense? Does he really believe that for over half a century we have been slavishly adhering to the dogma that genes only make proteins? I know lots of scientists who think the Central Dogma refers to the general pathway of information flow (DNA → RNA → protein) but I never met a biochemist or a molecular biologist who thought that this pathway ruled out genes whose final product was RNA.
That idea is total nonsense, of course, and Philip Ball would know this if he only bothered to read any of the textbooks of molecular biology. Not only have we been teaching about ribosomal RNA, and transfer RNA for 40 years, we've also covered all of the small RNAs involved in splicing, telomeres, signal recognition particle, RNAse P etc. etc. Does he think we're completely ignorant of the Nobel Prizes awarded to Sidney Altman and Tom Czech in 1989 "for their discovery of catalytic properties of RNA"?
Furthermore, we've been teaching about regulatory RNAs for almost as long. The classic examples are the antisense RNAs in bacteriophage λ, attenuation in the trp operon and small RNAs that control the initiation of DNA replication at plasmid origins.
If you were to believe Philip Ball, molecular biologists have clung to his version of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology in spite of all these counter-examples. Only now are they waking up to the fact that some genes make RNA as their final product. How stupid is that?
Science writers have a special obligation when writing for a general audience. Not only do they have to explain things in simple language but they have to be accurate as well. Pert of being accurate in science is having enough knowledge of the subject to be able to sort out the hype from reality. Philip Ball does not know anough about molecular biology to make that call. He should have read the cribsheet.