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Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Undergraduate education in biology: no vision, no change

I was looking at the Vision and Change document the other day and it made me realize that very little has changed in undergraduate education. I really shouldn't be surprised since I reached the same conclusion in 2015—six years after the recommendations were published [Vision and Change] [Why can't we teach properly?].

The main recommendations of Vision and Change are that undergraduate education should adopt the proven methods of student-centered education and should focus on core concepts rather than memorization of facts. Although there has been some progress, it's safe to say that neither of these goals have been achieved in the vast majority of biology classes, including biochemistry and molecular biology classes.

Things are getting even worse in this time of COVID-19 because more and more classes are being taught online and there seems to be general agreement that this is okay. It is not okay. Online didactic lectures go against everything in the Vision and Change document. It may be possible to develop online courses that practice student-centered, concept teaching that emphasizes critical thinking but I've seen very few attempts.

Here are a couple of quotations from Vision and Change that should stimulate your thinking.

Traditionally, introductory biology [and biochemistry] courses have been offered as three lectures a week, with, perhaps, an accompanying two- or three-hour laboratory. This approach relies on lectures and a textbook to convey knowledge to the student and then tests the student's acquisition of that knowledge with midterm and final exams. Although many traditional biology courses include laboratories to provide students with hands-on experiences, too often these "experiences" are not much more than guided exercises in which finding the right answer is stressed while providing students with explicit instructions telling them what to do and when to do it.
"Appreciating the scientific process can be even more important than knowing scientific facts. People often encounter claims that something is scientifically known. If they understand how science generates and assesses evidence bearing on these claims, they possess analytical methods and critical thinking skills that are relevant to a wide variety of facts and concepts and can be used in a wide variety of contexts.”

National Science Foundation, Science and Technology Indicators, 2008

If you are a student and this sounds like your courses, then you should demand better. If you are an instructor and this sounds like one of your courses then you should be ashamed; get some vision and change [The Student-Centered Classroom].

Although the definition of student-centered learning may vary from professor to professor, faculty generally agree that student-centered classrooms tend to be interactive, inquiry-driven, cooperative, collaborative, and relevant. Three critical components are consistent throughout the literature, providing guidelines that faculty can apply when developing a course. Student-centered courses and curricula take into account student knowledge and experience at the start of a course and articulate clear learning outcomes in shaping instructional design. Then they provide opportunities for students to examine and discuss their understanding of the concepts presented, offering frequent and varied feedback as part of the learing process. As a result, student-centered science classrooms and assignments typically involve high levels of student-student and student-faculty interaction; connect the course subject matter to topics students find relevant; minimize didactic presentations; reflect diverse views of scientific inquiry, including data presentation, argumentation, and peer review; provide ongoing feedback to both the student and professor about the student's learning progress; and explicitly address learning how to learn.

This is a critical time for science education since science is under attack all over the world. We need to make sure that university students are prepared to deal with scientific claims and counter-claims for the rest of their lives after they leave university. This means that they have to be skilled at critical thinking and that's a skill that can only be taught in a student-centered classroom where students can practice argumentation and learn the importance of evidence. Memorizing the enzymes of the Krebs Cycle will not help them understand climate change or why they should wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

On the importance of random genetic drift in modern evolutionary theory

The latest issue of New Scientist has a number of articles on evolution. All of them are focused on extending and improving the current theory of evolution, which is described as Darwin's version of natural selection [New Scientist doesn't understand modern evolutionary theory].

Most of the criticisms come from a group who want to extend the evolutionary synthesis (EES proponents). Their main goal is to advertise mechanisms that are presumed to enhance adaptation but that weren't explicitly included in the Modern Synthesis that was put together in the late 1940s.

One of the articles addresses random genetic drift [see Survival of the ... luckiest]. The emphasis in this short article is on the effects of drift in small populations and it gives examples of reduced genetic diversity in small populations.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

New Scientist doesn't understand modern evolutionary theory

New Scientist has devoted much of their September 26th issue to evolution, but not in a good way. Their emphasis is on 13 ways that we must rethink evolution. Readers of this blog are familiar with this theme because New Scientist is talking about the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES)—a series of critiques of the Modern Synthesis in an attempt to overthrow or extend it [The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis - papers from the Royal Society meeting].

My main criticsm of EES is that its proponents demonstrate a remarkable lack of understanding of modern evolutionary theory and they direct most of their attacks against the old adaptationist version of the Modern Synthesis that was popular in the 1950s. For the most part, EES proponents missed the revolution in evolutionary theory that occrred in the late 1960s with the development of Neutral Theory, Nearly-Neutral Theory, and the importance of random genetic drift. EES proponents have shown time and time again that they have not bothered to read a modern textbook on population genetics.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Function Wars Part VIII: Selected effect function and de novo genes

Discussions about the meaning of the word "function" have been going on for many decades, especially among philosphers who love that sort of thing. The debate intensified following the ENCODE publicity hype disaster in 2012 where ENCODE researchers used the word function an entirely inappropriate manner in order to prove that there was no junk in our genome. Since then, a cottege indiustry based on discussing the meaning of function has grown up in the scientific literature and dozens of papers have been published. This may have enhanced a lot of CV's but none of these papers has proposed a rigorous definition of function that we can rely on to distinguish functional DNA from junk DNA.

The world is not inhabited exclusively by fools and when a subject arouses intense interest and debate, as this one has, something other than semantics is usually at stake.
Stephen Jay Gould (1982)

That doesn't mean that all of the papers have been completely useless. The net result has been to focus attention on the one reliable definition of function that most biologists can accept; the selected effect function. The selected effect function is defined as ...

Friday, August 07, 2020

Alan McHughen defends his views on junk DNA

Alan McHughen is the author of a recently published book titled DNA Demystified. I took issue with his stance on junk DNA [More misconceptions about junk DNA - what are we doing wrong?] and he has kindly replied to my email message. Here's what he said ...

Thursday, August 06, 2020

More misconceptions about junk DNA - what are we doing wrong?

I'm actively following the views of most science writers on junk DNA to see if they are keeping up on the latest results. The latest book is DNA Demystified by Alan McHughen, a molecular geneticist at the University California, Riverside. It's published by Oxford University Press, the same publisher that published John Parrington's book the deeper genome. Parrington's book was full of misleading and incorrect statements about the human genome so I was anxious to see if Oxford had upped it's game.1, 2

You would think that any book with a title like DNA Demystified would contain the latest interpretations of DNA and genomes, especially with a subtitle like "Unraveling the double Helix." Unfortunately, the book falls far short of its objectives. I don't have time to discuss all of its shortcomings so let's just skip right to the few paragraphs that discuss junk DNA (p.46). I want to emphasize that this is not the main focus of the book. I'm selecting it because it's what I'm interested in and because I want to get a feel for how correct and accurate scientific information is, or is not, being accepted by practicing scientists. Are we falling for fake news?

Saturday, August 01, 2020

ENCODE 3: A lesson in obfuscation and opaqueness

The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) is a large-scale, and very expensive, attempt to map all of the functional elements in the human genome.

The preliminary study (ENCODE 1) was published in 2007 and the main publicity campaign surrounding that study focused on the fact that much of the human genome was transcribed. The implication was that most of the genome is functional. [see: The ENCODE publicity campaign of 2007].

The ENCODE 2 results were published in 2012 and the publicity campaign emphasized that up to 80% of our genome is functional. Many stories in the popular press touted the death of junk DNA. [see: What did the ENCODE Consortium say in 2012]

Both of these publicity campaigns, and the published conclusions, were heavily criticized for not understanding the distinction between fortuitous transcription and real genes and for not understanding the difference between fortuitous binding sites and functional binding sites. Hundreds of knowledgeable scientists pointed out that it was ridiculous for ENCODE researchers to claim that most of the human genome is functional based on their data. They also pointed out that ENCODE researchers ignored most of the evidence supporting junk DNA.

ENCODE 3 has just been published and the hype has been toned down considerably. Take a look at the main publicity article just published by Nature (ENCODE 3). The Nature article mentions ENCODE 1 and ENCODE 2 but it conveniently ignores the fact that Nature heavily promoted the demise of junk DNA back in 2007 and 2012. The emphasis now is not on how much of the genome is functional—the main goal of ENCODE—but on how much data has been generated and how many papers have been published. You can read the entire article and not see any mention of previous ENCODE/Nature claims. In fact, they don't even tell you how many genes ENCODE found or how many functional regulatory sites were detected.

The News and Views article isn't any better (Expanded ENCODE delivers invaluable genomic encyclopedia). Here's the opening paragraph of that article ...
Less than 2% of the human genome encodes proteins. A grand challenge for genomic sciences has been mapping the functional elements — the regions that determine the extent to which genes are expressed — in the remaining 98% of our DNA. The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project, among other large collaborative efforts, was established in 2003 to create a catalogue of these functional elements and to outline their roles in regulating gene expression. In nine papers in Nature, the ENCODE consortium delivers the third phase of its valuable project.1
You'd think with such an introduction that you would be about to learn how much of the genome is functional according to ENCODE 3 but you will be disappointed. There's nothing in that article about the number of genes, the number of regulatory sites, or the number of other functional elements in the human genome. It almost as if Nature wants to tell you about all of the work involved in "mapping the functional elements" without ever describing the results and conclusions. This is in marked contrast to the Nature publicity campaigns of 2007 and 2012 where they were more than willing to promote the (incorrect) conclusions.

In 2020 Nature seems to be more interested in obfuscation and opaqueness. One other thing is certain, the Nature editors and writers aren't the least bit interested in discussing their previous claims about 80% of the genome being functional!

I guess we'll have to rely on the ENCODE Consortium itself to give us a summary of their most recent findings. The summary paper has an intriguing title (Perspectives on ENCODE) that almost makes you think they will revisit the exaggerated claims of 2007 and 2012. No such luck. However, we do learn a little bit about the human genome.
  • 20,225 protein-coding genes [almost 1000 more than the best published estimates - LAM]
  • 37,595 noncoding genes [I strongly doubt they have evidence for that many functional genes]
  • 2,157,387 open chromatin regions [what does this mean?]
  • 1,224,154 transcription factor binding sites [how many are functional?]
That's it. The ENCODE Consortium seems to have learned only two things in 2012. They learned that it's better to avoid mentioning how much of the genome is functional in order to avoid controversy and criticism and they learned that it's best to ignore any of their previous claims for the same reason. This is not how science is supposed to work but the ENCODE Consortium has never been good at showing us how science is supposed to work.

Note: I've looked at some of the papers to try and find out if ENCODE stands by it's previous claim that most the genome is functional but they all seem to be written in a way that avoids committing to such a percentage or addressing the criticisms from 2007 and 2012. The only exception is a paper stating that cis-regulatory elements occupy 7.9% of the human genome (Expanded encyclopaedias of DNA elements in the human and mouse genomes). Please let me know if you come across anything interesting in those papers.

1. Isn't it about time to stop dwelling on the fact that 2% (actually less than 1%) of our genome encodes protein? We've known for decades that there are all kinds of other functional regions of the genome. No knowledgeable scientist thinks that the remaining 98% (99%) has no function.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The coronavirus life cycle

The coronavirus life cycle is depicted in a figure from Fung and Liu (2019). See below for a brief description.
The virus particle attaches to receptors on the cell surface (mostly ACE2 in the case of SARS-CoV-2). It is taken into the cell by endocytosis and then the viral membrane fuses with the host membrane releasing the viral RNA. The viral RNA is translated to produce the 1a and 1ab polyproteins, which are cleaved to produce 16 nonstructural proteins (nsps). Most of the nsps assemble to from the replication-transcription complex (RTC). [see Structure and expression of the SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus) genome]

RTC transcribes the original (+) strand creating (-) strands that are subsequently copied to make more viral (+) strands. RTC also produces a cluster of nine (-) strand subgenomic RNAs (sgRNAs) that are transcribed to make (+) sgRNAs that serve as mRNAs for the production of the structural proteins. N protein (nucleocapsid) binds to the viral (+) strand RNAs to help form new viral particles. The other structural proteins are synthesized in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) where they assemble to form the protein-membrane virus particle that engulfs the viral RNA.

New virus particles are released when the vesicles fuse with the plasma membrane.

The entire life cycle takes about 10-16 hours and about 100 new virus particles are released before the cell commits suicide by apoptosis.

Fung, T.S. and Liu, D.X. (2019) Human coronavirus: host-pathogen interaction. Annual review of microbiology 73:529-557. [doi: 10.1146/annurev-micro-020518-115759]

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Structure and expression of the SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus) genome

Coronaviruses are RNA viruses, which means that their genome is RNA, not DNA. All of the coronaviruses have similar genomes but I'm sure you are mostly interested in SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The first genome sequence of this virus was determined by Chinese scientists in early January and it was immediately posted on a public server [GenBank MN908947]. The viral RNA came from a patient in intensive care at the Wuhan Yin-Tan Hospital (China). The paper was accepted on Jan. 20th and it appeared in the Feb. 3rd issue of Nature (Zhou et al. 2020).

By the time the paper came out, several universities and pharmaceutical companies had already constructed potential therapeutics and several others had already cloned the genes and were preparing to publish the structures of the proteins.1

By now there are dozens and dozens of sequences of SARS-CoV-2 genomes from isolates in every part of the world. They are all very similar because the mutation rate in these RNA viruses is not high (about 10-6 per nucleotide per replication). The original isolate has a total length of 29,891 nt not counting the poly(A) tail. Note that these RNA viruses are about four times larger than a typical retrovirus; they are the largest known RNA viruses.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Where did your chicken come from?

Scientists have sequenced the genomes of modern domesticated chickens and compared them to the genomes of various wild pheasants in southern Asia. It has been known for some time that chickens resemble a species of pheasant called red jungle fowl and this led Charles Darwin to speculate that chickens were domesticated in India. Others have suggested Southeast Asia or China as the site of domestication.

The latest results show that modern chickens probably descend from a subspecies of red jungle fowl that inhabits the region around Myanmar (Wang et al., 2020). The subspecies is Gallus gallus spadiceus and the domesticated chicken subspecies is Gallus gallus domesticus. As you might expect, the two subspecies can interbreed.

The authors looked at a total of 863 genomes of domestic chickens, four species of jungle fowl, and all five subspecies of red jungle fowl. They identified a total of 33.4 million SNPs, which were enough to genetically distinguish between the various species AND the subspecies of red jungle fowl. (Contrary to popular belief, it is quite possible to assign a given genome to a subspecies (race) based entirely on genetic differences.)

The sequence data suggest that chickens were domesticated from wild G. g. spadiceus about 10,000 years ago in the northern part of Southeast Asia. The data also suggest that modern domesticated chickens (G. g. domesticus) from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh interbred with another subspecies of red jungle fowl (G. g. murghi) after the original domestication. These chickens from South Asia contain substantial contributions from G. g. murghi ranging from 8-22%.

Next time you serve chicken, if someone asks you where it came from you won't be lying if you say it came from Myanmar.

Image credits: BBQ chicken, Creative Common License [Chicken BBQ]
Red Jungle Fowl, Creative Commons License [Red_Junglefowl_-Thailand]
Map: Lawler, A. (2020) Dawn of the chicken revealed in Southeast Asia, Science: 368: 1411.

Wang, M., Thakur, M., Peng, M. et al. (2020) 863 genomes reveal the origin and domestication of chicken. Cell Res (2020) [doi: 10.1038/s41422-020-0349-y]

Monday, July 06, 2020

A storm of cytokines

Cytokines are a diverse groups of small signal proteins that act like hormones to turn on genes in blood cells and cells of the immune system. In COVID-19 the production of cytokines can be over-stimulated to produce a cytokine storm that activates immune cells producing all kinds of severe, sometimes lethal, effects. There are dozens of different cytokines but they all act in a similar manner. Each one binds to a receptor on the membrane of a target cell and this stimulates the cytoplasmic side of the receptor to activate a transcription factor that enters the nucleus and turns on a specific set of genes. The activation step requires phosphorylation just like dozens of other signalling pathways. (See Morris et al. (2018) for a recent review.)

I was curious about the structures of these cytokines so I looked up a few of them on PDB. Here are three fairly representative structures.

Morris, R., Kershaw, N.J., and Babon, J.J. (2018) The molecular details of cytokine signaling via the JAK/STAT pathway. Protein Science 27: 1984-2009. [doi:]

Saturday, June 13, 2020

What's in Your Genome? Chapter 3: Repetitive DNA and Mobile Genetic Elements

By the end of chapter 3, readers will be familiar with two main lines of evidence for junk DNA: the C-Value Paradox, and the fact that most of our genome is full of bits and pieces of dead transposons and viruses. They will also understand that this is perfectly consistent with modern evolutionary theory.

Chapter 3: Repetitive DNA and Mobile Genetic Elements
  • Centromeres
  • Telomeres
  • Mobile genetic elements
  • Hidden viruses in your genome
  • What the heck is a transposon?
  • How much of our genome is composed of transposon-related sequences?
  • BOX 3-1: What does the humped bladderwort tell us about junk DNA?
  • Selfish genes and selfish DNA
  • Mitochondria are invading your genome!
  • Selection hypotheses
  • Exaptation and the post hoc fallacy
  • Box 3-2: Natural genetic engineering?
  • If it walks like a duck ...

What's in Your Genome? Chapter 2: The Evolution of Sloppy Genomes

I had to completely reorganize chapter 2 in order to move population genetics closer to the beginning of the book and reduce the number of words.

Chapter 2: The Evolution of Sloppy Genomes
  • Fugu sashimi
  • Variation in genome size
  • The Onion Test
  • Instantaneous genome doubling
  • Modern evolutionary theory
  • Random genetic drift
  • Neutral Theory
  • Nearly-Neutral Theory
  • Box 2-1: Are humans are still evolving?
  • Population size and the Drift-Barrier Hypothesis
  • Bacteria have small genomes
  • On the evolution of sloppy genomes

What's in Your Genome? Chapter 1: Introducing Genomes

My book is progressing slowly. The main task is to reduce it to about 120,000 words and that's proving to be a lot more difficult that I imagined.

Here's what's now in Chapter 1: Introducing Genomes
  • The genome war
  • Finishing the human genome sequence
  • What is DNA?
  • The double helix
  • The sequence of all the base pairs was the goal of the human genome project
  • How big is your genome?
  • Packaging DNA: chromatin
  • Transcription
  • Translation
  • The genetic code
  • Introns and exons
  • The history of junk DNA

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Dan Graur proposes a new definition of "gene"

I've thought a lot about how to define the word "gene." It's clear that no definition will capture all the possibilities but that doesn't mean we should abandon the term. Traditionally, the biochemical definition attempts to describe the part of the genome that produces a functional product. Most scientists seem to think that the only possible product is a protein so it's common to see the word "gene" defined as a DNA sequence that produces a protein.

But from the very beginning of molecular biology the textbooks also talked about genes for ribosomal RNAs and tRNAs so there was never a time when knowledgeable scientists restricted their definition of a gene to protein-coding regions. My best molecular definition is described in What Is a Gene?.

A gene is a DNA sequence that is transcribed to produce a functional product.

Dan Graur has also thought about the issue and he comes up with a different definition in a recent blog post: What Is a Gene? A Very Short Answer with a Very Long Footnote

A gene is a sequence of genomic material (DNA or RNA) that has a selected effect function.

This is obviously an attempt to equate "function" with "gene" so that all functional parts of the genome are genes, by definition. You might think this is rather silly because it excludes some obvious functional regions but Dan really does want to count them as genes.
Performance of the function may or may not require the gene to be translated or even transcribed.

Genes can, therefore, be classified into three categories:

(1) protein-coding genes, which are transcribed into RNA and subsequently translated into proteins.

(2) RNA-specifying genes, which are transcribed but not translated

(3) nontranscribed genes.
Really? Is it useful to think of centromeres and telomeres as genes? Is it useful to define an origin of replication as a gene? And what about regulatory sequences? Should each functional binding site for a transcription factor be called a gene?

The definition also leads to some other problems. Genes (my definition) occupy about 30% of the human genome but most of this is introns, which are mostly junk (i.e. no selected effect function). How does that make sense using Dan's definition?