Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On Human Genomes and “Rewriting the Textbooks”

blog.bioethics.net: :

I hate when the media proclaims, “They’ll have to rewrite the textbooks.” It’s easy for them to say. They don’t do it.

I do.

That phrase will likely be bandied about this week with the multiple publications from the ENCODE project. That stands for the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project, a mega-effort from 35 research groups around the globe to dissect a representative 1 percent of the human genome (The ENCODE Project Consortium, Genome Research).

True, the media/public may have gotten their fill of geno-news of late, what with the grandstanding PR event of James Watson having his 3 billion DNA bases exposed, so to speak, and the turning on of stemness genes in mice, apparently circumventing the embryonic route. ...

This is the case with the ENCODE findings. Among a deluge of data, what has emerged is that much of the DNA sequence that evolution has apparently conserved in diverse genomes (I’m not talking an Italian compared to Nigerian, but, say, a wombat to an ape) needn’t have the same or even any apparent function. Yet disturbingly many DNA sequences that are diverse and unique and therefore not thought to be constrained by evolution can nonetheless have important functions. This will turn the idea that “if it’s important, evolution would have kept it much the same across species” on its head.

An equally important finding makes me want to get up and cheer. “Junk” DNA isn’t junk after all. ... "Said one speaker at a genomics conference, ‘Anyone who still thinks that introns have no function, please volunteer to have them removed, so we can see what they do.’ He had no takers.” I’ve never, ever heard a scientist call any DNA junk. Only those with mutations in the arrogance gene would term something garbage just because we can’t figure out what the heck it does.

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