Shapiro has published scientific articles with Richard Sternberg who advocates a similar position but who has become one of the poster boys of the Discovery Institute and one of the stars of the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Like Sternberg, Shapiro is admired by IDiots [Non-supernatural ID?: University of Chicago microbiologist James Shapiro works with ID guys, dismisses Darwinism, offers third way].
One of the characteristics Shapiro shares with the IDiots is attacking evolution. In this post I want to review a paper he published in 2009 on "Revisiting the Central Dogma in the 21st Century" (Shapiro, 2009).
The correct version of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology is:
... once (sequential) information has passed into protein it cannot get out again (F.H.C. Crick, 1958)In other words, the flow of information is from nucleic acid to protein and never from protein to nucleic acid.
The central dogma of molecular biology deals with the detailed residue-by-residue transfer of sequential information. It states that such information cannot be transferred from protein to either protein or nucleic acid. (F.H.C. Crick, 1970)
The incorrect version of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology is what Crick referred to as the "Sequence Hypothesis" and what we now know as a simplified version of the standard pathway for information flow from genes that specify a protein product. The incorrect version is often presented in textbooks as the real Central Dogma although that's slowly changing [The Central Dogma Strawman].
None of this should be a problem for someone who is writing a scholarly article for the scientific literature since we expect such a person to have read the relevant references (Crick, 1958; Crick, 1970). They should get it right. Let's see how Shapiro does when he says ...
The concept was that information basically flows from DNA to RNA to protein, which determines the cellular and organismal phenotype. While it was considered a theoretical possibility that RNA could transfer information to DNA, information transfer from proteins to DNA, RNA, of other proteins was considered outside the dogma and "would shake the whole intellectual basis of molecular biology [Crick, 1970].That sounds pretty good but the first part is a little troubling. Which version does Shapiro actually believe he's "revisiting"?
For that we have to look to a paper he published last year (Shapiro, 2010) where he says ...
Crick's central dogma of molecular biology:Oh dear, he's got the wrong version. This doesn't look good.
1. DNA --> 2x DNA
2. DNA --> RNA --> protein --> phenotype
The 2009 paper lists a whole bunch of things wrong with the central dogma but I'll just mention the ones under "Basic Molecular Functions."
The molecular analysis of fundamental biochemical processes in living cells has repeatedly produced surprises about unexpected (or even "forbidden") activities. A short (and partial) list of these activities provides may illustrative complications or contradictions of the central dogma.None of these things complicate or contradict the correct version of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. They don't even conflict with the general flow of information diagram that we see in the textbooks since that diagram is meant to represent a simple version of information flow from DNA to protein. The fact that some species might have a few extra adornments isn't really a problem. Biology is full of exceptions to general rules.
- Reverse transcription ....
- Posttranscriptional RNA processing ....
- Catalytic RNA ....
- Genome-wide (pervasive) transcription ....
- Posttranslational protein modification ....
- DNA proofreading and repair ....
The fact that he mentions reverse transcription is especially revealing since the reason why Francis Crick wrote his 1970 Nature paper was to dispel the notion that reverse transcription had anything to do with the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. You only need to read the opening paragraph of that 41-year old paper to see how little things have changed.
Plus ça change (plus c'est la même chose)."The central dogma, enunciated by Crick in 1958 and the keystone of molecular biology ever since, is likely to prove a considerable over-simplification".This quotation is taken from the beginning of an unsigned article  headed "Central dogma reversed", recounting the very important work of Dr. Howard Temin  and others  showing that an RNA tumour virus can use viral RNA as a template for DNA synthesis. This is not the first time that the idea of the central dogma has been misunderstood, in one way or another. In this article I explain why the term was originally introduced, its true meaning, and state why I think that, properly understood, it is still an idea of fundamental importance.
So, why do people like Shapiro makes such a big deal of this? It's because claims that the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology have been overthrown1 attract attention and fit into a larger agenda. If your goal is to start a revolution in biology then the first thing you have to do is knock down the existing "dogma." It doesn't seem to matter that you are attacking a strawman. But it's a sign that the rest of your agenda isn't very sound.
1. Such claims are occurring with increasing frequency in the past ten years. It now seems that the central dogma is being falsified about three or four times a year.
Crick, F.H.C. (1958) On protein synthesis. Symp
Crick, F. (1970) Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. Nature 227:561-563. [PDF file]
Shapiro, James A. (2009) Revisiting the Central Dogma in the 21st Century. Ann. N.y. Acd. Sci. 1178:6-28. [doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04990.x]
Shapiro, J.A. (2010) Mobile DNA and evolution in the 21st century. Mob DNA. 1:1-14. [doi: 10.1186/1759-8753-1-4]