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Friday, December 28, 2018

On the accuracy of Ancestry.com DNA predictions

I'm very impressed with the DNA test administered by Ancestry.com. They report that I have over 600 fourth cousins or closer but I have confirmed some even more distant relationships. See below for the most distant relationship that the DNA tests reveal.

In the vast majority of cases the people who share DNA markers with me have no family tree that's on Ancestry.com so it's impossible to say for sure whether we are related. There are often clues based on who else shares our haplotypes but unless the person reveals their name and some of their ancestors that's all I can do. I usually contact those people who could hep me sort out some unknown relationships but I rarely get a reply.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Most popular Sandwalk posts of 2017

I was looking at some of my posts from the past few years and wondered which ones were the most popular. I had previously identified the most popular post of 2016 but not the most popular ones from 2017 so here they are.

The one with the most views (7481) is a link to a video by Michio Kaku who tells us that humans have stopped evolving [Another physicist teaches us about evolution].

The one with the most comments (259) is a post about my attempts to teach a creationist about glycolysis and evolution [Trying to educate a creationist (Otangelo Grasso)].

The post that I'm most proud of is: Historical evolution is determined by chance events


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

My DNA story

This is the latest update from Ancestry.com. Their algorithms are getting better and better. This corresponds very closely to what I know of my ancestors.



Saturday, December 15, 2018

Alternative splicing in the nematode C. elegans

The importance of alternative splicing is highly controversial. In the case of humans, the competing views are: (a) more than 90% of human protein-coding genes are alternatively spliced to produce multiple protein isoforms, and (b) less than 10% of human genes are alternatively spliced and most of the splice variants detected are due to splicing errors.

In addition to this fundamental difference in how to interpret the data, there's a controversy over the meaning and significance of abundant alternative splicing, assuming that it exists. The consensus view among the workers in the field is that alternative splicing is ubiquitous and it explains why humans are so complex when they have only the same number of genes as "lower" species like the nematode C. elegans. This was the view expressed by Gil Ast in a 2005 Scientific American article on "The Alternative Genome."

Saturday, December 08, 2018

The persistent myth of alternative splicing

I'm convinced that widespread alternative splicing does not occur in humans or in any other species. It's true that the phenomenon exists but it's restricted to a small number of genes—probably fewer than 1000 genes in humans. Most of the unusual transcripts detected by modern technology are rare and unstable, which is consistent with the idea that they are due to splicing errors. Genome annotators have rejected almost all of those transcripts.

You can see links to my numerous posts on this topic at: Alternative splicing and the gene concept and Are splice variants functional or noise?.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

The textbook view of alternative splicing

As most of you know, I'm interested in the problem of alternative splicing. I believe that the number of splice variants that have been detected is perfectly consistent with the known rate of splicing errors and that there's no significant evidence to support the claim that alternative splicing leading to the production of biologically relevant protein variants is widespread. In fact, there's plenty of evidence for the opposite view; namely, splicing errors (lack of conservation, low abundance, improbable protein predictions, inability to detect the predicted proteins).

My preferred explanation is definitely the minority view. What puzzles me is not the fact that the majority is wrong () but the fact that they completely ignore any other explanation of the data and consider the case for abundant alternative splicing to be settled.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Deflated egos and the G-value paradox

The Deflated Ego Problem refers to the fact that many scientists were very disappointed to learn we had less than 30,000 genes. Those scientists were expecting that the human genome would contain many more genes in line with their belief that humans must be genetically more complex than the "lower" animals. They should have known better since knowledgeable experts were predicting fewer than 30,000 genes and these same experts knew that humans don't need many more genes than other animals [see: Revisiting the deflated ego problem].

Disappointed scientists don't use the term "deflated ego;" instead they refer to their problem as the G-value paradox. This makes it seem like a real problem instead of just a mistaken view of evolution.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Michael Behe's third book

I'm looking forward to Michael Behe's third book, which is due to be published in February. As most of you probably know, Michael Behe is a biochemist and a former professor at Lehigh University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA. He's also a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture—the most prominent organization pushing Intelligent Design Creationism.

This will be Behe's third book. The first one was Darwin's Black Box (1996) where he argued against evolution by suggesting that some cellular complexes (e.g. bacterial flagella) are irreducibly complex and could not possibly have evolved by natural means. His second book was The Edge of Evolution (2007) where the theme was that there are limits to evolution preventing it from accomplishing significant beneficial changes.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Latest Tango in Halifax

I've known Yana Eglit for many years. She frequently posts comments on this blog but you won't recognize her name because she uses a pseudonym.1 Yana is a graduate student in the lab of Alastair Simpson at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. A few years ago she saw some strange organisms dancing in a Petri dish.2

The microorganisms belong to the group Hemimastigophora. Yana found them in a clump of dirt she picked up while hiking near Halifax. They named the species Hemimastix kukwesjijk. The group only contains a few other species.

Hemimastigophora is one of those protist groups that have been difficult to classify and difficult to place relative to other protists. It's traditionally been given the status of a phylum but its position in the eukaryotic tree was ambiguous.

The Simpson lab, in a collaboration with Andrew Roger's group, sequenced a number of genes (transcripts) from H. kukwesjijk and another species that they recently identified (Spirenema). The datasets contained samples of about 300 genes of each species. Trees constructed with this dataset place the Hemimastigophora near the base of the eukrayotic tree as a sister group to Diaphoretices. The work was published in a recent issue of Nature (Lax, Egrit, et al., 2018).

The details of eukaryotic taxonomy and the various subdivisions needn't concern us but the important take-home lesson is that there are a huge number of protists forming diverse groups that separated more than a billion years ago. The authors claim that Hemimastigophora deserves supra-kingdom status equivalent to the other supra-kingdoms shown in the figure (modified from Figure 4 of the paper).

The root of the eukaryotic tree is controversial. It could be at positions a, b, or c, shown in the figure. According to the authors, position a is the most favored these days. Regardless of where the root is actually placed, the new positioning of Hemimastigophora adds a lot of information to the deepest parts of the eukaryotic tree and brings us closer to identifying the most primitive features of the eukaryotic cell.

I wonder how many other strange species can be found in Canadian dirt?


Photo Credit: The photo of Yana Eglit at her microscope is from the Dalhousie University press office [Hidden in plain sight: Dal evolutionary biologists uncover a new branch on the Tree of Life]

1. Which she might accidentally reveal if she responds to this post!

2. The fact they were "dancing" gave me an excuse to use a corny title that refers to one of our favorite TV shows, "Last Tango in Halifax."

Lax, G., Eglit, Y., Eme, L., Bertrand, E. M., Roger, A. J., and Simpson, A. G. B. (2018) Hemimastigophora is a novel supra-kingdom-level lineage of eukaryotes. Nature. (in press) [doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0708-8]

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Revisiting the deflated ego problem

Humans are just another animal. All animals share a core set of several thousand genes and all mammals have about the same number of homologous genes (~25,000). The differences between species such as gorillas, bats and whales are due almost exclusively to differences in the timing of expression of these common genes.

This concept is not new. It was the major theme of Stephen Jay Gould's book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, back in 1977 [Learning About EVO-Devo]. Over the next twenty years or so, the concept was confirmed repeatedly by the work of hundreds of developmental biology labs working mostly with model organisms such as Drosophila (fruit flies). The field is evolutionary developmental biology or "evo-devo" and that work has been nicely summarized in several popular books appearing in the 21st century.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Celebrating 50 years of Neutral Theory

The importance of Neutral Theory and Nearly-Neutral Theory cannot be exaggerated. It has radically transformed the way experts think about evolution, especially at the molecular level. Unfortunately, the average scientist is not aware of the revolution that took place 50 years ago and they still think of evolution as a synonym for natural selection. I suspect that 80% of biology undergraduates in North American universities are graduating without a deep understanding of the importance of Neutral Theory.1

The journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution has published a special issue: Celebrating 50 years of the Neutral Theory. The key paper published 50 years ago was Motoo Kimura's paper on “Evolutionary rate at the molecular level” (Kimura, 1968) followed shortly after by a paper from Jack Lester King and Thomas Jukes on "Non-Darwinian Evolution" (King and Jukes, 1969).

The special issue contains reprints of two classic papers published in Molecular Biology and Evolution in 1983 and 2005. In addition, there are 14 reviews and opinions written by editors of the journal and published earlier this year (see below). It's interesting that several of the editors of a leading molecular evolution journal are challenging the importance of Neutral Theory and one of them (senior editor Matthew Hahn) is downright hostile.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

DNA Is Not Destiny by Steven J. Heine

DNA Is Not Destiny: The Remarkable Completely Misunderstood Relationship between You and Your Genes
by Steven J. Heine
W.W. Norton & Company, New York/London (2017)
ISBN: 978-0-393-24408-3

Steven Heine is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, B.C., Canada). He has written a book about the perils of DNA testing and his main thesis is that the results of such tests are bound to make you fell unhappy because you will learn that you have a higher risk of several nasty diseases. He warns us that the science behind these predictions is not nearly as solid as the testing companies would have you believe but his main point is the psychological impact of the test results. He claims that we are not conditioned to put the results into the proper perspective because we are pre-conditioned to adopt a very fatalist view of our genetic makeup.

He had his DNA analyzed by a number of companies. Here's some of what he learned from 23 and Me.
23andMe provided me with a gripping set of predictions about my health with real concrete numbers—I learned that I have a 2.1 percent chance of developing Parkinson's disease, and this is 32 percent higher than the average person. The 23andMe experience "felt" satisfying because it provided a wealth of highly specific and personal information about my health. But then, so would the fortune-teller down the street, and at least she isn't claiming any scientific foundation to her predictions.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The role of chance in evolution

I highly recommend this brief editorial by Naruya Saitou: "Chance, Finiteness, and History" (Saitou, 2018). Saitou is a strong proponent of Neutral Theory and the importance of random genetic drift. Together these influences, along with the "random" nature of mutation, introduce a major element of chance and accident into evolution.

Saitou was a student of Masatochi Nei and he recounts how he was influenced by Nei's 1987 book "Molecular Evolutionary Genetics." I remember reading that book 30 years ago and being very impressed with Nei's case for mutationism. Dan Graur also studied with Nei and he was kind enough to introduce me to Nei a few years ago in Chicago.

I think it's very clear that the role of chance in evolution, especially in molecular evolution, is very much underappreciated by the average scientist and by almost all non-scientists who are interested in the field. I doubt they will be convinced by a short essay but at least it will alert them to a different way of thinking.

Here's an example from Saitou's essay of that way of thinking ...
This world is finite. Our earth is just a 40,000-km circumference sphere. Life evolved on this tiny planet. We have to face the finiteness of the living world when we think about evolution. Random fluctuation of DNA copies (allele frequencies in classic sense) is a logical consequence of this finiteness. Because evolution follows time, evolution is historical. And chance played an important role in evolutionary history, as already noted by Darwin (1859). This is why I often mention three words—chance, finiteness, and history—in my talks and books as well as the title for this perspective.
Saitou is using "evolution" in two different senses. First, there's the ongoing process involving changes in allele frequencies and then there's the history of life. I think it's best to avoid using the word "evolution" as a stand-in for the history of life but that's just a quibble. The idea behind the history of life is that the pathway that each extant lineage has followed over the past three billion years is very much due to chance and accident. It's like Gould's idea that the tape of life can't be replayed.

The essay contains a sentence about junk DNA ...
From direct comparison of protein or RNA coding gene regions with noncoding regions of many genomes, it became clear that the majority of intergenic regions and introns are in fact “junk” DNA, as predicted by Ohno (1972).
This is about all the comment that's needed if you're a population geneticist. From their perspective, the debate is over and junk DNA won decisively over the speculation that most of our genome is functional. I wish more scientists, journalists, and philosophers would realize that the leading experts have reached a consensus on this subject.1


1. Let me repeat what I've said many times before: you don't have to agree with the views of these experts but you do have to acknowledge what you are up against when you argue for function. Do not mislead your audience by ignoring the experts in order to make your own opinion seem more reasonable.

Saitou, N. (2018) Chance, finiteness, and history. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 35(6), 1556-1557. [doi: 10.1093/molbev/msy087]

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

John Mattick's latest attack on junk DNA

John Mattick is the most prominent defender of the idea that the human genome is full of functional sequences. In fact, he is just about the only scientist of any prominence who's on that side of the debate. His main "evidence" is the fact that genomes are pervasively transcribed and that most of the transcripts are functional. Let's look at his latest review paper to see how well this argument stands up to close scrutiny (Mattick, 2018).1

As you read this post, keep in mind that in 2012 John Mattick was awarded a prize by the Human Genome Organization for proving his hypothesis [John Mattick Wins Chen Award for Distinguished Academic Achievement in Human Genetic and Genomic Research].
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.”
Mattick follows his usual format by giving us his version of history. He has argued for the past 15 years that the scientific community has been reluctant to accept the evidence of massive amounts of regulatory RNA genes because it conflicts with the standard paradigm of the supremacy of proteins. In the past he has claimed that this paradigm is based on the Central Dogma which states, according to him, that the only real function of DNA is to make proteins [How Much Junk in the Human Genome?]. As we shall see, he hasn't abandoned that argument but at least he no longer refers to the Central Dogma for support

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The great junk DNA debate


I've been talking to philosophers lately about the true state of the junk DNA controversy. I imagine what it would be like to stage a great debate on the topic. It's easy to come up with names for the pro-junk side; Dan Graur, Ford Doolittle, Sean Eddy, Ryan Gregory etc. It's hard to think of any experts who could defend the idea that most of our genome is functional. The only scientist I can think of who would accept such a challenge is John Mattick but let's imagine that he could find three others to join him in the great debate.

I claim that the debate would be a rout for the pro-junk side. The data and the theories are all on the side of those who would argue that 90% of our genome is junk. I don't think the functionalists could possibly defend the idea that most of our genome is functional. What do you think?

Assuming that I'm right, why is it that the average scientist doesn't know this? Why do they still believe there's a good case for function when none of the arguments stand up to close scrutiny? And why are philosophers not conveying the true state of the controversy to their readers? I'm told that anti-junk philosophers like Evelyn Fox Keller are held in high regard even though her arguments are easy to refute [When philosophers talk about genomes]. I'm told that John Mattick is highly respected in philosophy circles even though knowledgeable scientists have little use for his writings.

Can readers help me identify papers by philosophers of science that come down on the side of junk DNA and conclude that experts like Graur, Doolittle, etc are almost certainly correct?


Image Credit: The cartoon is by Tom Gauld and it was published online at the The New York Times Magazine website. I hope they will consider it fair use on an educational blog. See: Junk DNA comments in the New York Times Magazine.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Alternative splicing and the gene concept

I just learned about a workshop scheduled for the end of this month. The topic is: Evolutionary Roles of Transposable Elements and Non-coding DNA: The Science and the Philosophy.

I'd love to attend but it's a just small workshop designed to encourage dialogue between scientists and philosophers who are interested in the topic. Here's a list of the speakers ...
  • Ryan Gregory: Junk DNA, genome size, and the onion test.
  • Stefan Linquist: Four decades debating junk DNA and the Phenotype Paradigm is (somehow) alive and well.
  • Chris Ponting: 92.9% of the human genome evolved neutrally.
  • Paul Griffiths: Both adaptation and adaptivity are relevant to diagnosing function.
  • Ford Doolittle: Selfish genes and selfish DNA: is there a difference?
  • Justin Garson: Biological functions, the liberality problem, and transposable elements.
  • Joyce Havstad: Evolutionary Thinking about Critique of Function Talk.
  • Guillame Bourque: Impact of transposable elements on human gene regulatory networks.
  • Ulrich Stegman: On parity, genetic causation and coding.
  • Steven Downes: Understanding non-coding variants as disease risk alleles.
  • Alexander Palazzo: How nuclear retention and cytoplasmic export of RNAs reduces the deleteriousness of junk DNA.
  • David Haig: Pax somatica
  • Cedric Feschotte: Transposable elements as catalysts of genome evolution.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Who wants "A Sad Case: Owen vs Huxley" pamphlet and a possible Darwin letter?

A friend has a neighbor who's in possession of a pamphlet from 1863 on the Owen vs Huxley debate. The text of the pamphlet is here: A Report of A SAD CASE, Recently tried before the Lord Mayor, OWEN versus HUXLEY, In which will be found fully given the Merits of the great Recent BONE CASE. A photocopy of the pamphlet is shown below along with a possible letter from Charles Darwin (I have not authenticated the letter).

The owners are willing to donate the material to a worthy cause, preferably a museum if it's valuable. Does anyone know of a worthy home?










Friday, July 13, 2018

How many protein-coding genes in the human genome?

The three main human databases (GENCODE/Ensembl, RefSeq, UniProtKB) contain a total of 22,210 protein-coding genes but only 19,446 of these genes are found in all three databases. That leaves 2764 potential genes that may or may not be real. A recent publication suggests that most of them are not real genes (Abascal et al., 2018). The issue is the same problem that I discussed in recent posts [Disappearing genes: a paper is refuted before it is even published] [Nature falls (again) for gene hype].

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Nature falls (again) for gene hype

Nature is arguably the most prestigious science journal. Articles published in Nature are widely perceived to be correct, unbiased, and factual. This perception is certainly true of articles that appear in the News section of the journal since these article are presumably written by expert science writers who have evaluated the new study and decided that it's worth reporting.

Sandwalk readers know that this perception is false (fake news). It turns out that science writers who publish in Nature are not very much better than science writers in general and that's not good.

I recently published a post about an extraordinary claim concerning the number of human genes [Disappearing genes: a paper is refuted before it is even published ]. It concerns a paper posted on an archive site claiming to have found 4,998 new genes of which 1,178 are new protein-coding genes (Pertea et. al., 2018). About five weeks later another paper was posted that effectively refuted the claim of new protein-coding genes (Jungreis et al., 2018). In between publication of those two papers, a freelance science writer, Cassandra Willyard, wrote an article for Nature News that covered the original claim of 4,998 new genes [New human gene tally reignites debate].

Let's see how she handled the controversy.

Disappearing genes: a paper is refuted before it is even published

Several readers alerted me to a paper that was posted on bioRxiv a few weeks ago (May 28, 2018). The paper claimed that the human genome contains 43,162 genes consisting of 21,306 protein-coding genes and 21,856 noncoding genes. The authors reported that they had discovered 3,819 new noncoding genes and 1,178 new protein-coding genes. In addition, they claim to have discovered 97,511 new splice variants raising the total number of splice variants to 12.5 per protein-coding gene although they seem to suggest that almost one-third of these splice variants are non-functional splicing errors. The most striking result, according to the authors, is that 95% of all transcripts are just transcriptional noise.

Here's the paper ...

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Press release from the Francis Crick Institute misrepresents junk DNA

Press releases have become a serious problem. I'm frequently upset whenever I read a press release covering a field I'm familiar with. They rarely do a good job of explaining what's actually in the paper and putting it into the proper context. The people who write press releases are more concerned with sensationalizing the work than they are with teaching the general public about how science works. They often do this with the blessing and participation of the scientists who did the work.

Let me illustrate the problem using a recent examples from the Francis Crick Institute in London, UK [Non-coding DNA changes the genitals you're born with]. The press release covers a recent Science paper from the Lovell-Badge lab ....

Friday, May 18, 2018

Is lateral gene transfer (LGT) Lamarckian?

There's an interesting discussion going on about lateral gene transfer (LGT) in eukaryotes. LGT is the process by which DNA from one species invades the genome of another species. It was apparently very common among primitive bacteria several billion years ago and it's still quite common in modern bacteria.

There are many reports of LGT in eukaryotes but some of them seem to be due to contamination from bacteria rather than true LGT. Many scientists are skeptical of these reports; notably Bill Martin (Heinrich Heine Universität, Düsseldorf, Germany) who suggests that almost all of them are artifacts and lateral gene transfer in eukaryotes is extremely rare [see Lateral gene transfer in eukaryotes - where's the evidence?].

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Fixing carbon by reversing the citric acid cycle

The citric acid cycle1 is usually taught as depicted in the diagram on the right.2 A four-carbon compound called oxaloaceate is joined to a two-carbon compound called acetyl-CoA to produce a six-carbon tricarboxylic acid called citrate. In subsequent reactions, two carbons are released in the form of carbon dioxide to regenerate the original oxaloacetate. The cycle then repeats. The reactions produce one ATP equivalent (ATP or GTP), three NADH molecules, and one QH2 molecule.

The GTP/ATP molecule and the reduced coenzymes (NADH and QH2) are used up in a variety of other reactions. In the case of NADH and QH2, one of the many pathways to oxidation is the membrane-associated electron transport system that creates a proton gradient across a membrane. The electron transport complexes are buried in membranes—plasma and internal membranes in bacteria and the inner mitochondrial membrane in eukaryotes. Students are often taught that this is the only fate of NADH and QH2 but that's not true.

One of the other common misconceptions is that the citric acid cycle runs exclusively in one direction; namely, the direction shown in the diagram. That's also not true. The reactions of the citric acid cycle are near-equilibrium reactions like most reactions in the cell. What this means is that the concentrations of the reactants and products are close to the equilibrium values so that a slight increase in one of them will lead to a rapid equilibration. The reactions can run in either direction.3

Philosophers talking about genes

It's important to define what you mean when you use the word "gene." I use the molecular definition since most of what I write refers to DNA sequences. There's no perfect definition but, for most purposes, a good working definition is: A gene is a DNA sequence that is transcribed to produce a functional product. [What Is a Gene?].

There are two types of genes: protein-coding genes and those that specify a functional noncoding RNA (i.e ribosomal RNA, lincRNA). The gene is the part of the DNA that's transcribed so it includes introns. Transcription is controlled by regulatory sequences such as promoters, operators, and enhancers but these are not part of the gene.

In addition to genes, there are many other functional parts of the genome. In the case of eukaryotic genomes, these include centromeres, telomeres, origins of replication, SARs, and some other bits. None of this is new ... these functions have been known for decades and the working definition I use has been common among knowledgeable experts for half-a-century. Scientists know what they are talking about when they say that the human genome contains about 20,000 protein-coding genes and at least 5,000 genes for non-coding RNAs. They are comfortable with the idea that our genome has lots of other functional regions that lie outside of the genes.

Non-experts may not be familiar with the topic and they may have many misconceptions about genes and DNA sequences but we don't base our science on the views of non-experts.

Because of my interest in this topic, I was intrigued by the title of a new book, The Gene: from Genetics to Postgenomics. I ordered it a soon as I heard about it and I've just finished reading it. The version I read has been translated from German by Adam Bostanci.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Required reading for the junk DNA debate

This is a list of scientific papers on junk DNA that you need to read (and understand) in order to participate in the junk DNA debate. It's not a comprehensive list because it's mostly papers that defend junk DNA and refute arguments for massive amounts of function. The only exception is the paper by Mattick and Dinger (2013).1 It's the only anti-junk paper that attempts to deal with the main evidence for junk DNA. If you know of any other papers that make a good case against junk DNA then I'd be happy to include them in the list.

If you come across a publication that argues against junk DNA, then you should immediately check the reference list. If you do not see some of these references in the list, then don't bother reading the paper because you know the author is not knowledgeable about the subject.

Brenner, S. (1998) Refuge of spandrels. Current Biology, 8:R669-R669. [PDF]

Brunet, T.D., and Doolittle, W.F. (2014) Getting “function” right. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111:E3365-E3365. [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1409762111]

Casane, D., Fumey, J., et Laurenti, P. (2015) L’apophénie d’ENCODE ou Pangloss examine le génome humain. Med. Sci. (Paris) 31: 680-686. [doi: 10.1051/medsci/20153106023] [The apophenia of ENCODE or Pangloss looks at the human genome]

Cavalier-Smith, T. (1978) Nuclear volume control by nucleoskeletal DNA, selection for cell volume and cell growth rate, and the solution of the DNA C-value paradox. Journal of Cell Science, 34(1), 247-278. [doi: PDF]

Doolittle, W.F. (2013) Is junk DNA bunk? A critique of ENCODE. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) published online March 11, 2013. [PubMed] [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221376110]

Doolittle, W.F., Brunet, T.D., Linquist, S., and Gregory, T.R. (2014) Distinguishing between “function” and “effect” in genome biology. Genome biology and evolution 6, 1234-1237. [doi: 10.1093/gbe/evu098]

Doolittle, W.F., and Brunet, T.D. (2017) On causal roles and selected effects: our genome is mostly junk. BMC biology, 15:116. [doi: 10.1186/s12915-017-0460-9]

Eddy, S.R. (2012) The C-value paradox, junk DNA and ENCODE. Current Biology, 22:R898. [doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.10.002]

Eddy, S.R. (2013) The ENCODE project: missteps overshadowing a success. Current Biology, 23:R259-R261. [10.1016/j.cub.2013.03.023]

Graur, D. (2017) Rubbish DNA: The functionless fraction of the human genome Evolution of the Human Genome I (pp. 19-60): Springer. [doi: 10.1007/978-4-431-56603-8_2 (book)] [PDF]

Graur, D. (2017) An upper limit on the functional fraction of the human genome. Genome Biology and Evolution, 9:1880-1885. [doi: 10.1093/gbe/evx121]

Graur, D., Zheng, Y., Price, N., Azevedo, R. B., Zufall, R. A., and Elhaik, E. (2013) On the immortality of television sets: "function" in the human genome according to the evolution-free gospel of ENCODE. Genome Biology and Evolution published online: February 20, 2013 [doi: 10.1093/gbe/evt028

Graur, D., Zheng, Y., and Azevedo, R.B. (2015) An evolutionary classification of genomic function. Genome Biology and Evolution, 7:642-645. [doi: 10.1093/gbe/evv021]

Gregory, T. R. (2005) Synergy between sequence and size in large-scale genomics. Nature Reviews Genetics, 6:699-708. [doi: 10.1038/nrg1674]

Haerty, W., and Ponting, C.P. (2014) No Gene in the Genome Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. Annual review of genomics and human genetics, 15:71-92. [doi:10.1146/annurev-genom-090413-025621]

Hurst, L.D. (2013) Open questions: A logic (or lack thereof) of genome organization. BMC biology, 11:58. [doi:10.1186/1741-7007-11-58]

Kellis, M., Wold, B., Snyder, M.P., Bernstein, B.E., Kundaje, A., Marinov, G.K., Ward, L.D., Birney, E., Crawford, G. E., and Dekker, J. (2014) Defining functional DNA elements in the human genome. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 111:6131-6138. [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318948111]

Mattick, J. S., and Dinger, M. E. (2013) The extent of functionality in the human genome. The HUGO Journal, 7:2. [doi: 10.1186/1877-6566-7-2]

Five Things You Should Know if You Want to Participate in the Junk DNA DebateMorange, M. (2014) Genome as a Multipurpose Structure Built by Evolution. Perspectives in biology and medicine, 57:162-171. [doi: 10.1353/pbm.2014.000]

Niu, D. K., and Jiang, L. (2012) Can ENCODE tell us how much junk DNA we carry in our genome?. Biochemical and biophysical research communications 430:1340-1343. [doi: 10.1016/j.bbrc.2012.12.074]

Ohno, S. (1972) An argument for the genetic simplicity of man and other mammals. Journal of Human Evolution, 1:651-662. [doi: 10.1016/0047-2484(72)90011-5]

Ohno, S. (1972) So much "junk" in our genome. In H. H. Smith (Ed.), Evolution of genetic systems (Vol. 23, pp. 366-370): Brookhaven symposia in biology.

Palazzo, A.F., and Gregory, T.R. (2014) The Case for Junk DNA. PLoS Genetics, 10:e1004351. [doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1004351]

Rands, C. M., Meader, S., Ponting, C. P., and Lunter, G. (2014) 8.2% of the Human Genome Is Constrained: Variation in Rates of Turnover across Functional Element Classes in the Human Lineage. PLOS Genetics, 10:e1004525. [doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1004525]

Thomas Jr, C.A. (1971) The genetic organization of chromosomes. Annual review of genetics, 5:237-256. [doi: annurev.ge.05.120171.001321]


1. The paper by Kellis et al. (2014) is ambiguous. It's clear that most of the ENCODE authors are still opposed to junk DNA even though the paper is mostly a retraction of their original claim that 80% of the genome is functional.

Friday, April 06, 2018

I'm going to a birthday party!

It's Bruce Alberts' 80th birthday party in San Francisco. There will be food, wine, cake, and (probably) dancing but first you go to the symposium on education.


Bruce Alberts’ 80th Birthday Gathering and Symposium

Saturday, April 14
Symposium on Science Education and Science Policy in Honor of Bruce Alberts’ 80th Birthday
(At the Metropolitan Club, 640 Sutter St., San Francisco 94102)

9a Guests arrive and register

10a Introduction by Master of Ceremonies Gregor Eichele

10:10a Session 1 How do we convey the importance of science to the public?
Moderator: Maureen Munn
Panelists: Janet Coffey, Will Colglazier, Janet English, Caroline Kiehle

11:40a Break

12p Buffet Lunch served in the Garden Room

1:30p Session 2 Innovations in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
Moderators: Doug Kellogg and Kimberly Tanner.
Panelists: Judy Miner, Sally Pasion (one more panelist TBA)

2:30p Coffee and tea break

3p Session 3 Challenges Facing the Next Generation of Scientists
Moderators: Cynthia Fuhrmann and Bill Theurkauf.
Panelists: Marc Kirschner, Barry Selick, Nolan Sigal

4p Break

4:30p Session 4 Science Policy
Moderators: Mary Maxon and Jason Rao
Panelists: Bill Colglazier, Haile Debas, Donna Riordan, Keith Yamamoto

5:30p Elaine Bearer’s Duet for clarinet and viola: “Replication Machine”

6:15p Reception at Metropolitan Club Bar (4th Floor)

7p Buffet Dinner (Metropolitan Club Main Dining Hall — 4th Floor) Ending at 9:30p.

Sunday, April 15

10a - 2p Drop-in Brunch for all hosted at Beth Alberts’ home


Photo: Bruce Alberts with his first three graduate students: Glenn Herrick (right), Keith Yamamoto (left), Larry Moran (middle right), Bruce Alberts (middle left).

Cafe Scientific Mississauga: The Good, Bad, & Natural

Dan Riskin: The Good, Bad, & Natural: What Mother Nature says
about morality?


Thursday, April 12, 2018
7:30 - 10:00 pm
The Franklin House
263 Queen Street S
Streetsville (Mississauga), Ontario, Canada

"People often act like “natural” is synonymous with “good.” Using heinous examples from the scientific literature, Dan Riskin will blow the hinges off that misconception. Then he’ll give some thoughts about where, if not from nature, the roots of human morality might lie.

Dan Riskin, PhD, is a television personality, scientist, author, and podcaster. He is best known as the co-host of Discovery's flagship science program, Daily Planet, and as the host of Animal Planet's show about parasites, Monsters Inside Me. To make science accessible and interesting to wide audiences, Dan has appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, The Dr. Oz Show, and on several news outlets, including CP24, CTV, CNN, and CBS. Dan has published more than 20 papers in scientific journals, and his first popular book, Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You was a Canadian bestseller.

IMPORTANT:
This meetup starts 30 minutes later than our regular meeting time to give Dan time to drive to Mississauga from Scarborough.
You are welcome to come at 7 or 7:30, but don't expect the talk to begin before 8 pm. It will definitely be worth it.
"


Thursday, April 05, 2018

Subhash Lakhotia: The concept of 'junk DNA' becomes junk

Continuing my survey of recent papers on junk DNA, I stumbled upon a review by Subash Lakhotia that has recently been accepted in The Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy (Lakhotia, 2018). It illustrates the extent of the publicity campaign mounted by ENCODE and opponents of junk DNA. In the title of this post, I paraphrased a sentence from the abstract that summarizes the point of the paper; namely, that the 'recent' discovery of noncoding RNAs refutes the concept of junk DNA.

Lakhotia claims to have written a review of the history of junk DNA but, in fact, his review perpetuates a false history. He repeats a version of history made popular by John Mattick. It goes like this. Old-fashioned scientists were seduced by Crick's central dogma into thinking that the only important part of the genome was the part encoding proteins. They ignored genes for noncoding RNAs because they didn't fit into their 'dogma.' They assumed that most of the noncoding part of the genome was junk. However, recent new discoveries of huge numbers of noncoding RNAs reveal that those scientists were very stupid. We now know that the genome is chock full of noncoding RNA genes and the concept of junk DNA has been refuted.

Peter Larsen: "There is no such thing as 'junk DNA'"

The March 2018 issue of Chromosome Research is a Special Issue on Transposable Elements and Genome Function. I found it as I was doing my routine search for papers on junk DNA in order to see whether scientists are finally beginning to understand the issue. Peter Larsen (guest editor) wrote the introduction to the special issue. He says ...
There is no such thing as “junk DNA.” Indeed, a suite of discoveries made over the past few decades have put to rest this misnomer and have identified many important roles that so-called junk DNA provides to both genome structure and function (this special issue; Biémont and Vieira 2006; Jeck et al. 2013; Elbarbary et al. 2016; Akera et al. 2017; Chen and Yang 2017; Chuong et al. 2017). Nevertheless, given the historical focus on coding regions of the genome, our understanding of the biological function of non-coding regions (e.g., repetitive DNA, transposable elements) remains somewhat limited, and therefore, all those enigmatic and poorly studied regions of the genome that were once identified as junk are instead best viewed as genomic “dark matter.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Sunday, March 18, 2018

What is "dark DNA"?

Some DNA sequencing technologies aren't very good at sequencing and assembling DNA that's rich in GC base pairs. What this means is that some sequenced genomes could be missing stretches of GC-rich DNA if they rely exclusively on those techniques. This difficult-to-sequence DNA was called "dark DNA" in a paper published last summer (July 2017).

The paper looked at some missing genes in the genome of the sand rat Psammomys obesus. The authors initially used a standard shotgun strategy in order to sequence the sand rat genome. They combined millions of short reads (&lt200 bp) to assemble a complete genome. A large block of genes seemed to be missing—genes that were conserved and present in the genomes of related species (Hargraves et al., 2017). They knew the genes were present because they could detect the mRNAs corresponding to those genes.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Making Sense of Genes by Kostas Kampourakis

Kostas Kampourakis is a specialist in science education at the University of Geneva, Geneva (Switzerland). Most of his book is an argument against genetic determinism in the style of Richard Lewontin. You should read this book if you are interested in that argument. The best way to describe the main thesis is to quote from the last chapter.

Here is the take-home message of this book: Genes were initially conceived as immaterial factors with heuristic values for research, but along the way they acquired a parallel identity as DNA segments. The two identities never converged completely, and therefore the best we can do so far is to think of genes as DNA segments that encode functional products. There are neither 'genes for' characters nor 'genes for' diseases. Genes do nothing on their own, but are important resources for our self-regulated organism. If we insist in asking what genes do, we can accept that they are implicated in the development of characters and disease, and that they account for variation in characters in particular populations. Beyond that, we should remember that genes are part of an interactive genome that we have just begun to understand, the study of which has various limitations. Genes are not our essences, they do not determine who we are, and they are not the explanation of who we are and what we do. Therefore we are not the prisoners of any genetic fate. This is what the present book has aimed to explain.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Is evolutionary psychology a deeply flawed enterprise?

We were discussing the field of evolutionary psychology at our local cafe scientific meeting last week. The discussion was prompted by watching a video of Steven Pinker in conversation with Stephen Fry. I pointed out that the field of evolutionary psychology is a mess and many scientists and philosophers think it is fundamentally flawed. The purpose of this post is to provide links to back up my claim.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Can the Dunning-Kruger effect be reversed?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect was first proposed in a classic 1999 paper (Kruger and Dunning, 1999).1 People suffering from this effect show one of two characteristics. If they are not knowledgeable about a subject they tend to overestimate their ability. If they are experts in a subject they tend to underestimate their ability (see figure).

The phenomenon is more significant in people who overestimate their ability because it includes a large number of people who are making decisions on subjects that they know little about. Because of the Dunning-Kruger effect, they are confident that their decisions are based on facts and evidence. That's bad enough, but there's another aspect to this problem—why do these people seem to be incapable of recognizing that they are suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect? Here's how Kruger and Dunning explain this ...

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Junk DNA and selfish DNA

Selfish DNA is a term that became popular with the publication of a series of papers in Nature in 1980. The authors were referring to viruses and transposons that insert themselves into a genome where they exist solely for the purposes of propagating themselves. These selfish DNA sequences are often thought, incorrectly, to be the same as the Selfish Genes of Richard Dawkins1 [Selfish genes and transposons]. In fact, "selfish genes" refers to the idea that some DNAs enhance fitness and the frequency of these genes will increase in a population through their effect on the vehicle that carries them. It's an adaptationist view of evolution. The selfish DNA of transposons and viruses is quite different. These sequences only propagate themselves—the fitness of the organism is largely irrelevant. These elements do not contribute directly to the adaptive evolution of the species.

Transposons and integrated viruses are subjected to mutation just like the rest of the genome. Deleterious mutations cannot be purged by natural selection because inactivating a transposon has no effect on the fitness of the organism.2 As a result, large genomes are littered with defective transposons and bits and pieces of dead transposons. This is not selfish DNA by any definition. It is junk DNA [What's in Your Genome?].

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Human genome books

Theme
Genomes
& Junk DNA

I'm trying to read all the recent books on the human genome and anything related. There are a lot of them. Here's a list with some brief comments. You should buy some of these books. There are others you should not buy under any circumstances.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Test your irony meter

The irony meter was a running joke on the newsgroup talk.origins back in the last century. Our irony meters were supposed to protect us from the craziness of creationists but as soon as we built a really good irony meter a new bit of creationist crazy came along and fried it. Apparently Jesus and Mo have the same problem.