The role of small RNAs is one of those topics. There are four types of RNA inside cells: tRNA, ribosomal RNA (rRNA), messenger RNA (mRNA), and a broad category that I call “small RNAs.”
The small RNAs include those required for splicing and those involved in catalyzing specific reactions. Many of them play a role in regulating genes expression. These roles have been known for at least three decades so there haven’t been any conceptual advances in the big picture for at least that long.
What’s new is an emphasis on the abundance and importance of small regulatory RNAs. Some workers believe that the human genomes contains thousands of genes for small RNAs that play an important role in regulating gene expression. That’s a main theme for those interpreting the ENCODE results. Several prominent scientists have written extensively about the importance of this “new information” on the abundance of small RNAs and how it assigns function to most of our genome.
One of these prominent scientists is John Mattick who recently received an award from the Human Genome Organization for ....
The Award Reviewing Committee commented that Professor Mattick’s “work on long non-coding RNA has dramatically changed our concept of 95% of our genome”, and that he has been a “true visionary in his field; he has demonstrated an extraordinary degree of perseverance and ingenuity in gradually proving his hypothesis over the course of 18 years.”I wrote an lengthy post explaining why this award was not justified [John Mattick Wins Chen Award for Distinguished Academic Achievement in Human Genetic and Genomic Research]. I don't think Mattick is correct. Here's are some of the reason why: How Much Junk in the Human Genome?, Genome Size, Complexity, and the C-Value Paradox, Basic Concepts: The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology.
Here’s the problem: who do you believe? Who are the scientific authorities on this topic?
Phil Ball writes.
To make a start, I know of course that RNA regulation is an old subject – I mentioned Cech and Altman in my 1994 book Designing the Molecular World. But it does seem that the extent and complexity of involvement of non-coding RNAs in genetics has become argued only much more recently. Certainly, I’m not aware that anyone was saying things such as “RNA is the computational engine of the system” when Cech and Altman got their Nobels. One can agree or disagree with such claims of Mattick and others, of course, but they are being prominently made – I’m not just making this up.How are science writers supposed to know that the claims of Mattick and others are—to say the least—controversial when Mattick gets a prestigious award for "proving his hypothesis" in spite of opposition from those who want to preserve the old view of junk DNA?
Who are the authorities and how do you recognize them?1 How do science writers even know there’s a controversy if there’s nothing in the scientific literature that refutes Mattick?
1. This is an important part of my course on scientific controversies. The answer is that you should always be skeptical of claims made in the scientific literature; especially claims that a paradigm has been overthrown. You don't have to decide which authority is correct but you do have to be careful not to get bamboozled by hype.