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Monday, September 27, 2021

The biggest mistake in the history of molecular biology (not!)

The creationists are committed to proving that most of our genome is functional because otherwise the idea of an intelligent designer doesn't make a lot of sense. They reject all of the evidence that supports junk DNA and they vehemently reject the notion that 90% of our genome is junk.

I was recently alerted to a video on junk DNA produced by Creation Ministries International in which they quote John Mattick.

A leading figure in genetics, Prof. John Mattick said ...'the failure to recognize the implications of the non-coding DNA will go down as the biggest mistake in the history of molecular biology'.

The creationists are making the common mistake of equating noncoding DNA and junk DNA but the quotation sounded accurate to me since John Mattick makes similar mistakes in his publications. I decided to try and find the exact quotation and reference and the closest I could come to a direct quote was in a paper by Mattick from 2007 (Mattick, 2007). He's referring to introns—here's the exact quotation.

It should be noted that the power and precision of digital communication and control systems has only been broadly established in the human intellectual and technological experience during the past 20–30 years, well after the central tenets of molecular biology were developed and after introns had been discovered. The latter was undoubtedly the biggest surprise (Williamson, 1977), and its misinterpretation possibly the biggest mistake, in the history of molecular biology. Although introns are transcribed, since they did not encode proteins and it was inconceivable that so much non-coding RNA could be functional, especially in an unexpected way, it was immediately and almost universally assumed that introns are non-functional and that the intronic RNA is degraded (rather than further processed) after splicing. The presence of introns in eukaryotic genomes was then rationalized as the residue of the early assembly of genes that had not yet been removed and that had utility in the evolution of proteins by facilitating domain shuffling and alternative splicing (Crick, 1979; Gilbert, 1978; Padgett et al., 1986). Interestingly, while it has been widely appreciated for many years that DNA itself is a digital storage medium, it was not generally considered that some of its outputs may themselves be digital signals, communicated viaRNA.

However, the idea of the biggest mistake in molecular biology predates that reference. Mattick is quoted in a Scientific American article by W. Wayt Gibbs where Gibbs is discssing the "suprising" fact that regulatory sequences are conserved and that some genes are noncoding genes (Gibbs, 2003).

“I think this will come to be a classic story of orthodoxy derailing objective analysis of the facts, in this case for a quarter of a century,” Mattick says. “The failure to recognize the full implications of this—particularly the possibility that the intervening noncoding sequences may be transmitting parallel information in the form of RNA molecules—may well go down as one of the biggest mistakes in the history of molecular biology.”

The discovery of introns in the mid-1970s was definitely a surprise but it's not true, as Mattick implies, that they were immediately assumed to be junk. In fact, as he points out, there was a lot of debate over the possible role of introns in the evolution of protein-coding genes where they could stimulate exon shuffling. Later on, the presence of introns was recognized to be an essential component of alternative splicing.

Once more and more sequences were published it became apparent that neither their size nor their sequences were conserved except for the spliceosome recognition sequences. It soon became obvious that their sequences were evolving at the neutral rate demonstrating that they were mostly junk. Mattick assumes that this conclusion—that introns are mostly junk—is one of the biggest mistakes in molecular biology. I think the opposite is true. I think that the failure of most molecular biologists to understand junk DNA is a huge mistake.

The creationists are misquoting Mattick when they say that the classification of all noncoding as junk is the biggest mistake in molecular biology. In the quotations above, Mattick is specifically referrring to introns but I'm sure he won't be upset to be misquoted in that manner since he firmly believes that most noncoding DNA is functional.

There's a bit of an ironic twist here. If it were true that knowledgeable scientists in the 1970s actually believed that all noncoding DNA was junk then I'd have to agree that this would have been a big (biggest?) mistake. But they didn't and it wasn't a big mistake. As I've said many times, no knowledgeable scientist ever said that all noncoding DNA was junk since they (we) all knew about noncoding genes, regulatory sequences, centromeres, and origins of replication, all of which are functional noncoding DNA. We now know that about 1% of our genome is coding sequences and about 9% is functional noncoding DNA. The other 90% is junk.

[Stop Using the Term "Noncoding DNA:" It Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means]

Mattick, J.S. (2007) A new paradigm for developmental biology. Journal of Experimental Biology 210:1526-1547. [doi: 10.1242/jeb.005017]

Gibbs, W.W. (2003) The unseen genome: gems among the junk. Scientific American 289:46-53.


  1. This amnesia is really strange. As you know, folks were doing multi-pairwise alignments of non-coding sequences flanking coding regions as early as 1990 (limited until then by computing power) to identify conserved sequences, which turned out to indicate discrete binding sites for transcription factors, ushering in the promoter bashing age. Indeed, if anything, we tended to overestimate the functionality of conserved sequences prior to functional testing in reporter constructs back then. So, this idea that the realization of functional sequences outside of protein coding sequence is recent or controversial is ludicrous to anyone involved in the study of gene regulation in the past 30+ years.

    1. Not to mention Jacob and Monod who got the Nobel Prize in 1965 for gene control in E. coli which involved proteins binding to a site outside the coding sequence. Kind of hard to ignore or forget.

    2. Yes! Forgive my eukaryocentrism.

  2. Think of a hypothetical scenario:

    You got the permission as well as the expertise to knockout all "junk" sequences present in the germline cells of a human couple. What sequences present in that "90 percent junk" would you knockout with absolute certainty?
    The newborn child should not be abnormal.

    1. @Unknown: If he gave you some sequences, what would you do with them?

    2. This is really hard to do. However, it's been done with one chromosome in mice. The mice were OK.

    3. @unknown
      Here's a good place to start:

      Transposons and viral remnants alone would cut the genome size in half.

    4. Permission from who ? Dr. Josef Mengele ?