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Saturday, December 16, 2023

Kat Arney interviews me on her podcast

I had a long chat with Kat Arney a few weeks ago and she has now taken the best parts of that conversation and put them in her latest Genetics Society podcast: Genes, junk and the 'dark genome'. My comments are in the last twelve minutes. At the end, Kat asks me "Is there like one thing you would really want a student or researcher, working in genetics today to really understand about the human genome?"

Kat was kind enough to write a blurb for my book last year where she said,

What's in Your Genome? is a thought-provoking and pugnatious book that will make you wonder afresh at the molecular intracies of life. When it comes to our genomes, we humans are nothing special—Moran makes a convincing argument that the vast majority of our sloppy human genome is not mysterious genetic treasures but boring junk.

In this podscast, she combines my thoughts on the human genome with those of two people who don't agee with the idea that the human genome is full of junk. Here's a brief summary of their positions.

Naomi Allen is Chief Scientist at UK Biobank, a consortium that's sequencing the genomes of UK citizens. So far, they've published data on 500,000 genome sequences. I wrote about one of their more significant findings last year (August, 2022) where they reported on the fraction of the human genome that was under purifying selection. This is an excellent proxy for functional DNA and the results are in line with (my) expectations: less that 10% of the genome is conserved and most of it is in the non-coding fraction [Identifying functional DNA (and junk) by purifying selection.

It's too bad that Kat's interview with Naomi Allen doesn't mention that important result, especially since the podcast is about junk DNA. Here's how Naomi Allen begins her part of the interview.

Whole genome sequencing enables researchers to look at all of the genetic variation across the entire genome. So not just in the 2% of the genome that encodes for proteins, but all of the genetic variation, much of which was previously considered "junk DNA" precisely because we didn't know what it did.

This is disappointing for two important reasons. First, surely in 2023 we've gone beyond the tired myth that all of the information in the human genome was concentrated in coding DNA? Second, no knowledgeable scientist ever said that all non-coding DNA was junk DNA and the idea of junk DNA was not based on ignorance so surely it's time to stop repeating that myth as well.

The rest of that interview focuses on how mapping genetic variation could contribute to our understanding of health and disease. I would have loved to ask how Biobanks proposes to do this if most of the variation is in junk DNA and also ask whether mutations in junk DNA can contribute to genetic disease. (They can.)

Danuta Jeziorska is the CEO of Nucleome Therapeutics, a company that's described as "spun out of Oxford University with a new set of technologies for exploring the dark genome." Kat asks her about the dark genome and here's her response.

So if you think about it, we have 22,000 genes in our genome, and we can compare that to having 22,000 ingredients in the fridge. We use the same set of ingredients to create different meals, just like how we have the same DNA within each cell, but then we have hundreds of different cell types. So this dark genome determines the combination of ingredients of the genes that you take and at which level you use them, to produce the different cell types that build our body. And you can just imagine that if you make a mistake in that - so let's say that you add the wrong ingredients in the wrong meal, you can mess up the meal. And in this same way you can mess up the cell type. So if you, for example, if you don't produce enough of haemoglobin to transport oxygen around the body, you will end up with a genetic form of anaemia or if you turn on a gene that's not supposed to be turned on, like an oncogene, you may end up having cancer.

So the dark genome is now very well understood as the mechanism that is causing diseases.

This is a slightly different definition of the dark genome than those I discussed in a recent post [What is the "dark matter of the genome"?]. In that post I suggested that most scientists were referring to all of the functions in non-coding DNA but Danuta Jeziorska seems to be restricting her use of "dark genome" to just regulatory sequences. In the rest of the interview she goes on to describe various types of regulatory sequences, with an emphasis on 3D structure, and to explain that many common genetic diseases are caused by mutations in regulatory sequences. Her company is using machine learning to find the functional elements in the dark genome and which variants are associated with disease. They are also investing in drug discovery.

What is the "dark matter of the genome"?

The phrase "dark matter of the genome" is used by scientists who are skeptical of junk DNA so they want to convey the impression that most of the genome consists of important DNA whose function is just waiting to be discovered. Not surprisingly, the term is often used by researchers who are looking for funding and investors to support their efforts to use the latest technology to discover this mysterious function that has eluded other scientists for over 50 years.

The term "dark matter" is often applied to the human genome but what does it mean? We get a clue from a BBC article published by David Cox last April: The mystery of the human genome's dark matter. He begins the article by saying,

Twenty years ago, an enormous scientific effort revealed that the human genome contains 20,000 protein-coding genes, but they account for just 2% of our DNA. The rest of was written off as junk – but we are now realising it has a crucial role to play.

Friday, December 08, 2023

What really happened between Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, and Francis Crick?

That's part of the title of podcast by Kat Arney who interviews Matthew Cobb [Double helix double crossing? What really happened between Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick?].

Matthew Cobb is one of the world's leading experts on the history of molecular biology.

The way it’s usually told, Franklin was effectively ripped off and belittled by the Cambridge team, especially Watson, and has only recently been restored to her rightful place as one of the key discoverers of the double helix. It’s a dramatic narrative, with heroes, villains and a grand prize. But, as I found out when I sat down for a chat with Matthew Cobb, science author and Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, the real story is a lot more nuanced.

Photo 51 did not belong to Rosalind Franklin and it had (almost) nothing to do with solving the structure of DNA. Franklin and Wilkins would never have gotten the structure on their own. Crick and Watson did not "steal" any data. Whether they behaved ethically is debatable.