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Saturday, August 20, 2022

Editing the 'Intergenic region' article on Wikipedia

Just before getting banned from Wikipedia, I was about to deal with a claim on the Intergenic region article. I had already fixed most of the other problems but there is still this statement in the subsection labeled "Properties."

According to the ENCODE project's study of the human genome, due to "both the expansion of genic regions by the discovery of new isoforms and the identification of novel intergenic transcripts, there has been a marked increase in the number of intergenic regions (from 32,481 to 60,250) due to their fragmentation and a decrease in their lengths (from 14,170 bp to 3,949 bp median length)"[2]

The source is one of the ENCODE papers published in the September 6 edition of Nature (Djebali et al., 2012). The quotation is accurate. Here's the full quotation.

As a consequence of both the expansion of genic regions by the discovery of new isoforms and the identification of novel intergenic transcripts, there has been a marked increase in the number of intergenic regions (from 32,481 to 60,250) due to their fragmentation and a decrease in their lengths (from 14,170 bp to 3,949 bp median length.

What's interesting about that data is what it reveals about the percentage of the genome devoted to intergenic DNA and the percentage devoted to genes. The authors claim that there are 60,250 intergenic regions, which means that there must be more than 60,000 genes.1 The median length of these intergenic regions is 3,949 bp and that means that roughly 204.5 x 106 bp are found in intergenic DNA. That's roughly 7% of the genome depending on which genome size you use. It doesn't mean that all the rest is genes but it sounds like they're saying that about 90% of the genome is occupied by genes.

In case you doubt that's what they're saying, read the rest of the paragraph in the paper.

Concordantly, we observed an increased overlap of genic regions. As the determination of genic regions is currently defined by the cumulative lengths of the isoforms and their genetic association to phenotypic characteristics, the likely continued reduction in the lengths of intergenic regions will steadily lead to the overlap of most genes previously assumed to be distinct genetic loci. This supports and is consistent with earlier observations of a highly interleaved transcribed genome, but more importantly, prompts the reconsideration of the definition of a gene.

It sounds like they are anticipating a time when the discovery of more noncoding genes will eventually lead to a situation where the intergenic regions disappear and all genes will overlap.

Now, as most of you know, the ENCODE papers have been discredited and hardly any knowledgeable scientist thinks there are 60,000 genes that occupy 90% of the genome. But here's the problem. I probably couldn't delete that sentence from Wikipedia because it meets all the criteria of a reliable source (published in Nature by scientists from reputable universities). Recent experience tells me that the Wikipolice Wikipedia editors would have blocked me from deleting it.

The best I could do would be to balance the claim with one from another "reliable source" such as Piovasan et al. (2019) who list the total number of exons and introns and their average sizes allowing you to calculate that protein-coding genes occupy about 35% of the genome. Other papers give slightly higher values for protein-coding genes.

It's hard to get a reliable source on the real number of noncoding genes and their average size but I estimate that there are about 5,000 genes and a generous estimate that they could take up a few percent of the genome. I assume in my upcoming book that genes probably occupy about 45% of the genome because I'm trying to err on the side of function.

An article on Intergenic regions is not really the place to get into a discussion about the number of noncoding genes but in the absence of such a well-sourced explanation the audience will be left with the statement from Djebali et al. and that's extremely misleading. Thus, my preference would be to replace it with a link to some other article where the controversy can be explained, preferably a new article on junk DNA.2

I was going to say,

The total amount of intergenic DNA depends on the size of the genome, the number of genes, and the length of each gene. That can vary widely from species to species. The value for the human genome is controversial because there is no widespread agreement on the number of genes but it's almost certain that intergenic DNA takes up at least 40% of the genome.

I can't supply a specific reference for this statement so it would never have gotten past the Wikipolice Wikpipedia editors. This is a problem that can't be solved because any serious attempt to fix it will probably lead to getting blocked on Wikipedia.

There is one other statement in that section in the article on Intergenic region.

Scientists have now artificially synthesized proteins from intergenic regions.[3]

I would have removed that statement because it's irrelevant. It does not contribute to understanding intergenic regions. It's undoubtedly one of those little factoids that someone has stumbled across and thinks it needs to be on Wikipedia.

Deletion of a statement like that would have met with fierce resistance from the Wikipedia editors because it is properly sourced. The reference is to a 2009 paper in the Journal of Biological Engineering: "Synthesizing non-natural parts from natural genomic template."

1. There are no intergenic regions between the last genes on the end of a chromosome and the telomeres.

2. The Wikipedia editors deleted the Junk DNA article about ten years ago on the grounds that junk DNA had been disproven.

Djebali, S., Davis, C. A., Merkel, A., Dobin, A., Lassmann, T., Mortazavi, A. et al. (2012) Landscape of transcription in human cells. Nature 489:101-108. [doi: 10.1038/nature11233]

Piovesan, A., Antonaros, F., Vitale, L., Strippoli, P., Pelleri, M. C., and Caracausi, M. (2019) Human protein-coding genes and gene feature statistics in 2019. BMC research notes 12:315. [doi: 10.1186/s13104-019-4343-8]

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