More Recent Comments

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Birds of a feather: epigenetics and opposition to junk DNA

There's an old saying that birds of a feather flock together. It means that people with the same interests tend to associate with each other. It's extended meaning refers to the fact that people who believe in one thing (X) tend to also believe in another (Y). It usually means that X and Y are both questionable beliefs and it's not clear why they should be associated.

I've noticed an association between those who promote epigenetics far beyond it's reasonable limits and those who reject junk DNA in favor of a genome that's mostly functional. There's no obvious reason why these two beliefs should be associated with each other but they are. I assume it's related to the idea that both beliefs are presumed to be radical departures from the standard dogma so they reinforce the idea that the author is a revolutionary.

Or maybe it's just that sloppy thinking in one field means that sloppy thinking is the common thread.

Here's an example from Chapter 4 of a 2023 edition of the Handbook of Epigenetics (Third Edition).

The central dogma of life had clearly established the importance of the RNA molecule in the flow of genetic information. The understanding of transcription and translation processes further elucidated three distinct classes of RNA: mRNA, tRNA and rRNA. mRNA carries the information from DNA and gets translated to structural or functional proteins; hence, they are referred to as the coding RNA (RNA which codes for proteins). tRNA and rRNA help in the process of translation among other functions. A major part of the DNA, however, does not code for proteins and was previously referred to as junk DNA. The scientists started realizing the role of the junk DNA in the late 1990s and the ENCODE project, initiated in 2003, proved the significance of junk DNA beyond any doubt. Many RNA types are now known to be transcribed from DNA in the same way as mRNA, but unlike mRNA they do not get translated into any protein; hence, they are collectively referred to as noncoding RNA (ncRNA). The studies have revealed that up to 90% of the eukaryotic genome is transcribed but only 1%–2% of these transcripts code for proteins, the rest all are ncRNAs. The ncRNAs less than 200 nucleotides are called small noncoding RNAs and greater than 200 nucleotides are called long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs).

In case you haven't been following my blog posts for the past 17 years, allow me to briefly summarize the flaws in that paragraph.

  • The central dogma has nothing to do with whether most of our genome is junk
  • There was never, ever, a time when knowledgeable scientists defended the idea that all noncoding DNA is junk
  • ENCODE did not "prove the significance of junk DNA beyond any doubt"
  • Not all transcripts are functional; most of them are junk RNA transcribed from junk DNA

So, I ask the same question that I've been asking for decades. How does this stuff get published?

1 comment :

Joe Felsenstein said...

I think the logic is something like this: (a) almost all of our genomes' sequence is coding for important, complex, subtly interacting phenotypes. And (b) the important, complex, subtly interacting phenotypes are not coded for in our genomes' DNA sequences, but by epigenetic modifications. Go figure.