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Friday, August 07, 2020

Alan McHughen defends his views on junk DNA

Alan McHughen is the author of a recently published book titled DNA Demystified. I took issue with his stance on junk DNA [More misconceptions about junk DNA - what are we doing wrong?] and he has kindly replied to my email message. Here's what he said ...

Thursday, August 06, 2020

More misconceptions about junk DNA - what are we doing wrong?

I'm actively following the views of most science writers on junk DNA to see if they are keeping up on the latest results. The latest book is DNA Demystified by Alan McHughen, a molecular geneticist at the University California, Riverside. It's published by Oxford University Press, the same publisher that published John Parrington's book the deeper genome. Parrington's book was full of misleading and incorrect statements about the human genome so I was anxious to see if Oxford had upped it's game.1, 2

You would think that any book with a title like DNA Demystified would contain the latest interpretations of DNA and genomes, especially with a subtitle like "Unraveling the double Helix." Unfortunately, the book falls far short of its objectives. I don't have time to discuss all of its shortcomings so let's just skip right to the few paragraphs that discuss junk DNA (p.46). I want to emphasize that this is not the main focus of the book. I'm selecting it because it's what I'm interested in and because I want to get a feel for how correct and accurate scientific information is, or is not, being accepted by practicing scientists. Are we falling for fake news?

Saturday, August 01, 2020

ENCODE 3: A lesson in obfuscation and opaqueness

The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) is a large-scale, and very expensive, attempt to map all of the functional elements in the human genome.

The preliminary study (ENCODE 1) was published in 2007 and the main publicity campaign surrounding that study focused on the fact that much of the human genome was transcribed. The implication was that most of the genome is functional. [see: The ENCODE publicity campaign of 2007].

The ENCODE 2 results were published in 2012 and the publicity campaign emphasized that up to 80% of our genome is functional. Many stories in the popular press touted the death of junk DNA. [see: What did the ENCODE Consortium say in 2012]

Both of these publicity campaigns, and the published conclusions, were heavily criticized for not understanding the distinction between fortuitous transcription and real genes and for not understanding the difference between fortuitous binding sites and functional binding sites. Hundreds of knowledgeable scientists pointed out that it was ridiculous for ENCODE researchers to claim that most of the human genome is functional based on their data. They also pointed out that ENCODE researchers ignored most of the evidence supporting junk DNA.

ENCODE 3 has just been published and the hype has been toned down considerably. Take a look at the main publicity article just published by Nature (ENCODE 3). The Nature article mentions ENCODE 1 and ENCODE 2 but it conveniently ignores the fact that Nature heavily promoted the demise of junk DNA back in 2007 and 2012. The emphasis now is not on how much of the genome is functional—the main goal of ENCODE—but on how much data has been generated and how many papers have been published. You can read the entire article and not see any mention of previous ENCODE/Nature claims. In fact, they don't even tell you how many genes ENCODE found or how many functional regulatory sites were detected.

The News and Views article isn't any better (Expanded ENCODE delivers invaluable genomic encyclopedia). Here's the opening paragraph of that article ...
Less than 2% of the human genome encodes proteins. A grand challenge for genomic sciences has been mapping the functional elements — the regions that determine the extent to which genes are expressed — in the remaining 98% of our DNA. The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project, among other large collaborative efforts, was established in 2003 to create a catalogue of these functional elements and to outline their roles in regulating gene expression. In nine papers in Nature, the ENCODE consortium delivers the third phase of its valuable project.1
You'd think with such an introduction that you would be about to learn how much of the genome is functional according to ENCODE 3 but you will be disappointed. There's nothing in that article about the number of genes, the number of regulatory sites, or the number of other functional elements in the human genome. It almost as if Nature wants to tell you about all of the work involved in "mapping the functional elements" without ever describing the results and conclusions. This is in marked contrast to the Nature publicity campaigns of 2007 and 2012 where they were more than willing to promote the (incorrect) conclusions.

In 2020 Nature seems to be more interested in obfuscation and opaqueness. One other thing is certain, the Nature editors and writers aren't the least bit interested in discussing their previous claims about 80% of the genome being functional!

I guess we'll have to rely on the ENCODE Consortium itself to give us a summary of their most recent findings. The summary paper has an intriguing title (Perspectives on ENCODE) that almost makes you think they will revisit the exaggerated claims of 2007 and 2012. No such luck. However, we do learn a little bit about the human genome.
  • 20,225 protein-coding genes [almost 1000 more than the best published estimates - LAM]
  • 37,595 noncoding genes [I strongly doubt they have evidence for that many functional genes]
  • 2,157,387 open chromatin regions [what does this mean?]
  • 1,224,154 transcription factor binding sites [how many are functional?]
That's it. The ENCODE Consortium seems to have learned only two things in 2012. They learned that it's better to avoid mentioning how much of the genome is functional in order to avoid controversy and criticism and they learned that it's best to ignore any of their previous claims for the same reason. This is not how science is supposed to work but the ENCODE Consortium has never been good at showing us how science is supposed to work.

Note: I've looked at some of the papers to try and find out if ENCODE stands by it's previous claim that most the genome is functional but they all seem to be written in a way that avoids committing to such a percentage or addressing the criticisms from 2007 and 2012. The only exception is a paper stating that cis-regulatory elements occupy 7.9% of the human genome (Expanded encyclopaedias of DNA elements in the human and mouse genomes). Please let me know if you come across anything interesting in those papers.

1. Isn't it about time to stop dwelling on the fact that 2% (actually less than 1%) of our genome encodes protein? We've known for decades that there are all kinds of other functional regions of the genome. No knowledgeable scientist thinks that the remaining 98% (99%) has no function.