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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Function Wars Part XII: Revising history and defending ENCODE

I'm very disappointed in scientists and philosophers who try to defend ENCODE's behavior on the grounds that they were using a legitimate definition of function. I'm even more annoyed when they deliberately misrepresent ENCODE's motive in launching the massive publicity campaign in 2012.

Here's another new paper on the function wars.

Ratti, E. and Germain, P.-L. (2021) A Relic of Design: Against Proper Functions in Biology. Biology & Philosophy 37:27. [doi: 10.1007/s10539-022-09856-z]

The notion of biological function is fraught with difficulties - intrinsically and irremediably so, we argue. The physiological practice of functional ascription originates from a time when organisms were thought to be designed and remained largely unchanged since. In a secularized worldview, this creates a paradox which accounts of functions as selected effect attempt to resolve. This attempt, we argue, misses its target in physiology and it brings problems of its own. Instead, we propose that a better solution to the conundrum of biological functions is to abandon the notion altogether, a prospect not only less daunting than it appears, but arguably the natural continuation of the naturalisation of biology.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Function Wars Part XI: Stefan Linquist responds to my critique

Stefan Linquist is a philosopher at the University of Guelph (Guelph, Ontario, Canada). He recently published a paper on function that I discussed [The Function Wars Part IX: Stefan Linquist on Causal Role vs Selected Effect]. This is his response.

Hi Larry,

First, thank you for giving my paper a careful read. The intended audience is the community of biologically-minded philosophers who seem largely convinced that:

1) Genes are so passé. More specifically, when it comes to explaining phenotypic development and evolution, such non-genic factors as noncoding RNA, maternally inherited methylation patterns, repetitive elements, etc. are equally if not more significant than genes. It is a short step to the view that most of these elements are somehow functional for the organism. Stated pejoratively, thinkers like John Mattick and Evelyn Fox-Keller have had a significant intellectual founder-effect on my discipline. My paper attempts to push back against this trend.

2) Molecular biology can and should ignore evolution. The idea here is that when it comes to the search for molecular mechanisms, it doesn’t matter if genomes are the product of multi-level evolution or if they had been created by God. When you work on mechanisms, you do experiments, and evolutionary considerations are irrelevant to how those experiments are conducted and interpreted. Or, so the thinking goes.

Many of your blog posts present counter arguments to these ideas with a level of understanding and precision that exceeds my efforts in this paper. Nonetheless, I want to take issue with your one suggestion (if I understand correctly) that biochemists tend to operate with a sophisticated understanding of the genome. My position is that biochemistry might be necessary, but is not sufficient for an informed view of genomics. Without Darwinian reasoning, biochemistry leads down unnecessary blind alleys.

Obvious to whom?

Let me be upfront that I am something of an academic bumpkin in comparison to fancy city-folk like you, or Palazzo, or Graur, or Doolittle, or Haig. My knowledge of molecular genetics is largely self taught. This is partly why I am perplexed by statements like the following. In a special collection of Chromosome Research entitled, “Transposable elements and the multidimensional genome” (2018), P.A. Larson (the collection editor) opens with this doozy:

“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…”

Is it me? Or is it him? It’s him, right? My point is simply that it can’t be obvious to everyone within the molecular biological community that not every binding site or repetitive element is somehow functional for the organism. This is to say nothing of the hype surrounding lncRNA.

My argument in the paper is that the missing piece of information is an understanding of where the majority of eukaryotic DNA comes from: a byproduct of coevolutionary interactions between parasitic TEs and the cell. Indeed, I provide evidence in another publication, Transposon dynamics and the epigenetic switch hypothesis, that over the past two decades or so, within the fields of molecular biology and biomedicine, interest in TEs has steadily declined. This trend is surprising given that over the same period we have come to learn just how prevalent TEs are in most genomes. I think that I can show, in another forthcoming paper, that this trend toward ignoring TE coevolutionary dynamics is associated with the increased biomedicalization of molecular biology as a discipline (more on that another time, perhaps). Whether this decline of interest in TEs is responsible for the tendency to interpret junk DNA as somehow functional is a further question.

Another factor that I find perplexing is the trickle of molecular biology majors who attend my philosophy of biology undergraduate seminar. I'm not surprised that they show up at all, rather I'm surprised about their conviction that any biochemically active region of the genome simply must be functional for the organism. "Functional until proven otherwise" seems to be the mantra that one must memorize in order to pass the med-school admissions exam. When I suggest to them that Darwinian reasoning leads to an alternative hypothesis about most of the DNA in eukaryotic genomes, they balk. Some just leave my class: “What does he know, just a philosopher.” Such is the life of an academic bumpkin from the intellectual sticks.

This is all to say that, yes, you are correct that my paper presents no new biological data. In a sense, it is old news. But it is news that many people –even some academic city slickers-- seem not to have absorbed.

I like to think of philosophy journals as a clearing house for discussions that are extremely important, but would be unlikely to elbow their way into the pages of most scientific journals. Aside of helpful blogs such as yours, where else are we to debate the theoretical framing and interpretation of junk DNA?

What’s with the philosophical obsession over functions?

It’s true that my article focuses on this longstanding debate over CR vs SE functions. I can imagine that from the perspective of a molecular biologist (with such a rich ontology to draw from, and so many fine grained distinctions at your disposal) this binary must appear ham-fisted.

Let me say two things. First, I repeat that my main audience is the community of biological philosophers. In this context, these basic categories of function and the debates that surround them provide a lingua franca. To have this discussion without connecting it to function concepts would seem odd. Second, I think that you and I would both be happy if the word “function” in genetics were restricted to what I elsewhere call maintenance functions. That is, to elements that have been maintained by purifying selection. However, many of my colleagues are so convinced of point 2 (above) that this proposal is essentially a non-starter. That is, they maintain that since molecular biology doesn't investigate causal role functions (a big assumption, but let it go for now), then this discipline can ignore Darwinian reasoning. My argument is that this inference is too quick. A problem with CR functions is their permissiveness: any old strand of DNA can have some CR function or other. What we need is some way to sort the functional wheat from the junky chaff. To do that, thinking about selective history is your best bet. In effect, you can deny entrance to Darwin at the front door if you want, but eventually you’ll have to let him in through the back.

A final note on the term “selective history.” You suggested that I should have instead used “evolution” in order to discourage a Panglossian view of the genome. The issue I see with your suggestion is that “evolution” is too vague –it really just means change over time. My contention is that one needs to do more than just consider historical (e.g. phylogenetic) details in order to take a biologically informed view of the genome. In addition, one needs to think about how the cell coevolves with parasitic TEs. Maybe “coevolutionary dynamics” would have been a better choice.

Finally, a plug. The paper you read is part of a special collection in Biology and Philosophy that I co-edited with Ford Doolittle entitled, “Function, junk and transposable elements: contested issues in the science of genomics.” As I write, I see that three papers have so far appeared and the other two (including mine and one coauthored by Alex Palazzo) should see the light of day soon:

Function, junk and transposable elements: contested issues in the science of genomics

Hopefully some of these will provide additional fodder.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Function Wars Part X: "Spam DNA"?

The authors of a recent paper think we need a new term "spam DNA" to describe some features of the human genome.

Fagundes, N.J., Bisso-Machado, R., Figueiredo, P.I., Varal, M. and Zani, A.L. (2022) What We Talk About When We Talk About “Junk DNA”. Genome Biology and Evolution 14:evac055. [doi: 10.1093/gbe/evac055]

“Junk DNA” is a popular yet controversial concept that states that organisms carry in their genomes DNA that has no positive impact on their fitness. Nonetheless, biochemical functions have been identified for an increasing fraction of DNA elements traditionally seen as “Junk DNA”. These findings have been interpreted as fundamentally undermining the “Junk DNA” concept. Here, we reinforce previous arguments that this interpretation relies on an inadequate concept of biological function that does not consider the selected effect of a given genomic structure, which is central to the “Junk DNA” concept. Next, we suggest that another (though ignored) confounding factor is that the discussion about biological functions includes two different dimensions: a horizontal, ecological dimension that reflects how a given genomic element affects fitness in a specific time, and a vertical, temporal dimension that reflects how a given genomic element persisted along time. We suggest that “Junk DNA” should be used exclusively relative to the horizontal dimension, while for the vertical dimension, we propose a new term, “Spam DNA”, that reflects the fact that a given genomic element may persist in the genome even if not selected for on their origin. Importantly, these concepts are complementary. An element can be both “Spam DNA” and “Junk DNA”, and “Spam DNA” can also be recruited to perform evolved biological functions, as illustrated in processes of exaptation or constructive neutral evolution.

The authors are scientists at the Federal Univesity of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. They are concerened about the origins of junk DNA and whether true selected effect functions (strong selected effect = SSE) conflict with the definition of junk DNA. Here's how they put it,

Paradoxically as it may seem, under the SSE definition, elements that contribute positively to fitness and are maintained by purifying selection would still count as “junk” only because they did not originate as an adaptation.

This is essentially correct according to how many philosophers define selected effect functions but that issue was resolved by focusing on purifying selection as the important criterion and ignoring the history of the trait (= maintenance function, MF). There is only a 'paradox' if you stick to the philosophy definition of function (i.e. SSE) and even then, the paradox only exists if the SSE definition is the only way to identify junk DNA. [see: The Function Wars Part IX: Stefan Linquist on Causal Role vs Selected Effect] The authors recognize this since they include a good discussion of this other definition (MF) and its advantages. Nevertheless, they propose a new term called "spam DNA" to help clarify the problem.

"Spam DNA" represents every genomic element which has not been selected for during its origin in the genome, even if it currently participates in relevant biological functions.

All of the DNA in the light blue box is spam DNA. Note that it includes DNA that is currently functional as long as it originated from junk DNA as they define it. Also, some junk DNA isn't spam DNA as long as it arose from the inactivation of DNA that used to have a function. Thus, pseudogenes aren't junk and neither are bits and pieces of transposons.

This isn't helpful. The current debate is about how much of our genome is junk so who cares about the history of individual sequences? A significant amount of what we currently define as junk DNA may have come from once-active transposons but we may never be able to trace the history of each piece of junk DNA. Does it fall into the first category in the figure (functional to junk) or is it spam DNA? Is this really important? No,it is not.

Function Wars
(My personal view of the meaning of function is described at the end of Part V.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Function Wars Part IX: Stefan Linquist on Causal Role vs Selected Effect

How much of the human genome is functional? This a problem that will be solved by biochemists not epistemologists.

What is junk DNA? What is functional DNA? Defining your terms is a key part of any scientific controversy because you can't have a debate if you can't agree on what you are debating. We've been debating the prevalence of junk DNA for more than 50 years and much of that debate has been (deliberately?) muddled by one side or the other in order to score points. For example, how many times have you heard the ridiculous claim that all noncoding DNA was supposed to be junk DNA? And how many times have you heard that all transcripts must have a function merely because they exist?

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Distrust simplicity (and turn off your irony meters)

I just stumbled upon an opinion piece published in EMBO Reports on May 22, 2022. The author is Frank Gannon who is identified as the former Director of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, Australia and the title of the article is "Seek simplicity and distrust it."

I'm about to quote some excerpts from the article but before doing so I need to warn you to run off your irony meters—even if you have the latest version with the most recent software updates.

Gannon's main point is that scientists should seek simple explanations but they must be willing to abandon them when better data comes along. He gives us some examples.

However, it seems that there is a collective amnesia among scientists such that we forget to distrust the simplicity that we pursue on our path to insight. The central dogma of molecular biology—that information flows unidirectionally from DNA to RNA to protein—was overturned, at least in part, with the discovery that this linear cascade could be reversed by reverse transcription.

Really? The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology was overturned, "at least in part," by reverse transcriptase? (It wasn't.) If you are going to write about a topic like this then you'd better make sure you know what you're talking about.

The great quote from Jacques Monod “What is true for E. coli is true for the elephant”, held valid only until the discovery of introns in eukaryotes. As I was close to the earliest data that pointed to the existence of split genes, I am well aware of the incredulity of biologists when they realised that genetic material did not have the same simple design irrespective of the organism.

Monod's statement was never supposed to be taken as literally as that.1 He was referring to the unity of biochemistry (Friedman, 2004). This is clear from what he says in Chance and Necessity, "Today we know that from the bacterium to man the chemical machinery is essentially the same, in both its structure and functioning." He meant that all species have DNA, RNA, and protein and that these molecules carry out the same roles in humans as they do in bacteria. The essence of this simple observation is as true today as it was 50 years ago.

The death of “Junk DNA”—a term, coined in 1972 by Susumu Ohno for the non-coding parts of the genome—has been more gradual. The perception that exons are the only useful part of the genome has been proven wrong with the discoveries of noncoding RNA, the controlling roles of intra-genomic areas, the essential interactions between distant genomic regions and peptides encoded by short open frame regions.

Did you turn off your irony meter? Don't say I didn't warn you. Jacques Monod (and Susumu Ohno) would be surprised to learn that in 1972 they knew nothing about noncoding genes and regulatory sequences.

More seriously, how did we ever get to the stage where a prominent scientist who frequently publishes opinion pieces in EMBO Reports could be so ignorant of the junk DNA controversy after all that's been written about it in the past ten years?

1. Besides, introns exist in bacteria.

Friedman, H.C. (2004) From Butyribacterium to E. coli: An Essay on Unity in Biochemistry. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47:47-66. [doi: 10.1353/pbm.2004.0007]

Monday, June 13, 2022

Manolis Kellis dismisses junk DNA

Manolis Kellis is a professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Sandwalk readers will remember him as one of the ENCODE leaders who participated in the massive publicity campaign of 2012 where they attempted to prove that most of the human genme is functional, not junk. He is the lead author of the semi-retraction that was published eighteen months later. [What did the ENCODE Consortium say in 2012 and 2014?]

Kellis was interviewed in April 2022 and it's interesting to hear his current views on junk DNA especially since MIT has just been rated the top university in the world for the 11th straight year. [QS ranks MIT the world’s No. 1 university for 2022-23].

His response to a question about junk DNA begins at 58 minutes. Kellis makes three points.

  • He doesn't like the word "junk."
  • Lots of noncoding DNA has known functions such as noncoding genes and regulatory sequences.
  • Half of our genome consists of transposon sequences and their regulatory regions fueled the mammalian radiation following the asteroid impact so that modern mammalian genomes now contain a complex and sophisticated network of regulatory sequences.

As I suspected, Kellis still doesn't recognize any of the evidence for junk DNA that was briefly outlined in the Kellis et al. (2014) paper. I find it surprising that after a decade of being exposed to criticism of his stance on junk DNA he is still not capable of presenting a cogent argument against junk.

Kellis, M. et al. (2014) Defining functional DNA elements in the human genome. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) April 24, 2014 published online [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318948111]

Monday, June 06, 2022

My father on D-day

Today is the 78th anniversary of D-Day—the day British, Canadian, and American troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in World War II.1

For us baby boomers it always meant a day of special significance for our parents. In my case, it was my father who took part in the invasions. That's him on the right as he looked in 1944. He was an RAF pilot flying rocket-firing typhoons in close support of the ground troops. His missions were limited to quick strikes and reconnaissance during the first few days of the invasion because Normandy was at the limit of their range from southern England. During the second week of the invasion (June 14th) his squadron landed in Crepon, Normandy and things became very hectic from then on with several close support missions every day [see Hawker Hurricanes and Typhoons in World War II].