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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: doi.org/10.1002/pro.3519]

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?
  • LINES and SINES
  • 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?


Saturday, April 18, 2020

Three scientists discuss junk DNA

I just found this video that was posted to YouTube on May 2019. It's produced by the University of California and it features three researchers discussing the question, "Is Most of Your DNA Junk!" The three scientists are:
  • Rusty Gage, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute
  • Alysson Muotri, who studies brain development at the University of California, San Diego
  • Miles Wilkinson, who studies neuronal and germ cell development at the University of San Diego
None of them appear to be experts on genomes or junk DNA although one of them (Wilkinson) appears to have some knowledge of the evidence for junk DNA, although many of his explanations are garbled. What's interesting is that they emphasize the fact that some transposon-related sequences are expressed in some cells and they rely on this fact to remain skeptical of junk DNA. They also propose that excess DNA might be present in order to ensure diversity and prepare for future evolution. All three seem to be comfortable with the idea that excess DNA may be protecting the rest of the functional genome.

This is a good example of what we are up against when we try to convince scientists that most of our genome is junk.





Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Alternative splicing: function vs noise

This post is about a recent review of alternative splicing published by my colleague Ben Blencowe in the Dept. of Medical Genetics at the University of Toronto (Toronto, Ontario, Canada). (The other author is Jermej Ule of The Francis Crick Institute in London (UK).) They are strong supporters of the idea that alternative splicing is a common feature of most human genes.

I am a strong supporter of the idea that most splice variants are due to splicing errors and only a few percent of human genes undergo true alternative spicing.

This is a disagreement about the definition of "function." Is the mere existence of multiple splice variants evidence that they are biologically relevant (functional) or should we demand evidence of function—such as conservation—before accepting such a claim?

Monday, April 06, 2020

The Function Wars Part VII: Function monism vs function pluralism

This post is mostly about a recent paper published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biol & Biomed Sci where two philosophers present their view of the function wars. They argue that the best definition of function is a weak etiological account (monism) and pluralistic accounts that include causal role (CR) definitions are mostly invalid. Weak etiological monism is the idea that sequence conservation is the best indication of function but that doesn't necessarily imply that the trait arose by natural selection (adaptation); it could have arisen by neutral processes such as constructive neutral evolution.

The paper makes several dubious claims about ENCODE that I want to discuss but first we need a little background.

Background

The ENCODE publicity campaign created a lot of controversy in 2012 because ENCODE researchers claimed that 80% of the human genome is functional. That claim conflicted with all the evidence that had accumulated up to that point in time. Based on their definition of function, the leading ENCODE researchers announced the death of junk DNA and this position was adopted by leading science writers and leading journals such as Nature and Science.

Let's be very clear about one thing. This was a SCIENTIFIC conflict over how to interpret data and evidence. The ENCODE researchers simply ignored a ton of evidence demonstrating that most of our genome is junk. Instead, they focused on the well-known facts that much of the genome is transcribed and that the genome is full of transcription factor binding sites. Neither of these facts were new and both of them had simple explanations: (1) most of the transcripts are spurious transcripts that have nothing to do with function, and (2) random non-functional transcription factor binding sites are expected from our knowledge of DNA binding proteins. The ENCODE researchers ignored these explanations and attributed function to all transcripts and all transcription factor binding sites. That's why they announced that 80% of the genome is functional.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Happy Darwin Day! 2020

Charles Darwin, the greatest scientist who ever lived, was born on this day in 1809 [Darwin still spurs tributes, debates] [Happy Darwin Day!] [Darwin Day 2017]. Darwin is mostly famous for two things: (1) he described and documented the evidence for evolution and common descent and (2) he provided a plausible scientific explanation of evolution—the theory of natural selection. He put all this in a book, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection published in 1859—a book that spurred a revolution in our understanding of the natural world. (You can still buy a first edition copy of the book but it will cost you several hundred thousand dollars.)