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Saturday, March 25, 2023

ChatGPT lies about junk DNA

I asked ChatGPT some questions about junk DNA and it made up a Francis Crick quotation and misrepresented the view of Susumu Ohno.

We have finally restored the Junk DNA article on Wikipedia. (It was deleted about ten years ago when Wikipedians decided that junk DNA doesn't exist.) One of the issues on Wikipedia is how to deal with misconceptions and misunderstandings while staying within the boundaries of Wikipedia culture. Wikipedians have an aversion to anything that looks like editorializing so you can't just say something like, "Nobody ever said that all non-coding DNA was junk." Instead, you have to find a credible reference to someone else who said that.

I've been trying to figure out how far the misunderstandings of junk DNA have spread so I asked ChatGPt (from OpenAI) again.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

A small crustacean with a very big genome

The antarctic krill genome is the largest animal genome sequenced to date.

Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) is a species of small crustacean (about 6 cm long) that lives in large swarms in the seas around Antarctica. It is one of the most abundant animals on the planet in terms of biomass and numbers of individuals.

It was known to have a large genome with abundant repetitive DNA sequences making assembly of a complete genome very difficult. Recent technological advances have made it possible to sequence very long fragments of DNA that span many of the repetitive regions and allow assembly of a complete genome (Shao et al. 2023).

The project involved 28 scientists from China (mostly), Australia, Denmark, and Italy. To give you an idea of the effort involved, they listed the sequencing data that was collected: 3.06 terabases (Tb) PacBio long read sequences, 734.99 Gb PacBio circular consensus sequences, 4.01 Tb short reads, and 11.38 Tb Hi-C reads. The assembled genome is 48.1 Gb, which is considerably larger than that of the African lungfish (40 Gb), which up until now was the largest fully sequenced animal genome.

The current draft has 28,834 protein-coding genes and an unknown number of noncoding genes. About 92% of the genome is repetitive DNA that's mostly transposon-related sequences. However, there is an unusual amount of highly repetitive DNA organized as long tandem repeats and this made the assembly of the complete genome quite challenging.

The protein-coding genes in the Antarctic krill are longer than in other species due to the insertion of repetitive DNA into introns but the increase in intron size is less than expected from studies of other large genomes such as lungfish and Mexican axolotl. It looks like more of the genome expansion has occurred in the intergenic DNA compared to these other species.

This study supports the idea that genome expansion is mostly due to the insertion and propagation of repetitive DNA sequences. Some of us think that the repetitive DNA is mostly junk DNA but in this case it seems unusual that there would be so much junk in the genome of a species with such a huge population size (about 350 trillion individuals). The authors were aware of this problem but they were able to calculate an effective population size because they had sequence data from different individuals all around Antarctica. The effective population size (Ne) turned out to be one billion times smaller than the census population size indicating that the population of krill had been much smaller in the recent past. Their data suggests strongly that this smaller population existed only 10 million years ago.

The authors don't mention junk DNA. They seem to favor the idea that large genomes are associated with crustaceans that live in polar regions and that large genomes may confer a selective advantage.

Shao, C., Sun, S., Liu, K., Wang, J., Li, S., Liu, Q., Deagle, B.E., Seim, I., Biscontin, A., Wang, Q. et al. (2023) The enormous repetitive Antarctic krill genome reveals environmental adaptations and population insights. Cell 186:1-16. [doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2023.02.005]

Friday, March 03, 2023

Do you understand the scientific literature?

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to understand the scientific literature even in subjects that I've been following for decades. Is it just because I'm getting too old to keep up?

Here's an example of a paper that I'd like to understand but after reading the abstract and the introduction I gave up. I'll quote the first paragraph of the introduction to see if any Sandwalk readers can do better.

I'm not talking about the paper being a complete mystery; I can figure out roughly what's it's about. What I'm thinking is that the opening paragraph could have been written in a way that makes the goals of the research much more comprehensible to average scientifically-literate people.

Weiner, D. J., Nadig, A., Jagadeesh, K. A., Dey, K. K., Neale, B. M., Robinson, E. B., ... & O’Connor, L. J. (2023) Polygenic architecture of rare coding variation across 394,783 exomes. Nature 614:492-499. [doi = 10.1038/s41586-022-05684-z]

Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have identified thousands of common variants that are associated with common diseases and traits. Common variants have small effect sizes individually, but they combine to explain a large fraction of common disease heritability. More recently, sequencing studies have identified hundreds of genes containing rare coding variants, and these variants can have much larger effect sizes. However, it is unclear how much heritability rare variants explain in aggregate, or more generally, how common-variant and rare-variant architecture compare: whether they are equally polygenic; whether they implicate the same genes, cell types and genetically correlated risk factors; and whether rare variants will contribute meaningfully to population risk stratification.

The first question that comes to mind is whether the variant that's associated with a common disease is the cause of that disease or merely linked to the actual cause. In other words, are the associated variants responsible for the "effect size"? It sounds like the answer is "yes" in this case. Has that been firmly esablished in the GWAS field?

Thursday, March 02, 2023

"You like me!"

The endorsements for my book are in.

One of the last steps in publishing a book is to collect endorsements—favorable statements from famous people who urge you to buy the book. These short endorsements will appear in the front of the book and on the book jacket (dust jacket). They may also appear on various websites in order to promote sales.

The trick is to sent the book out for review to as many people as possible and hope that one or two will like it well enough to say something nice. I'm pleased to report that there were, indeed, a few people who liked the book well enough to endorse it.

The title of this post is from Sally Field's acceptance speech on winning the Academy Award for best actress in 1985. She said, "I can't deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!"

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Definition of a gene (again)

The correct definition of a molecular gene isn't difficult but getting it recognized and accepted is a different story.

When writing my book on junk DNA I realized that there was an issue with genes. The average scientist, and consequently the average science writer, has a very confused picture of genes and the proper way to define them. The issue shouldn't be confusing for Sandwalk readers since we've covered that ground many times in the past. I think the best working definition of a gene is, "A gene is a DNA sequence that is transcribed to produce a functional product" [What Is a Gene?]