Nessa Carey has a virology PhD from the University of Edinburgh and is a former Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology at Imperial College, London. She worked in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry for thirteen years and is now International Director for the UK's leading organisation for technology transfer professionals. She lives in Norfolk and is a Visiting Professor at Imperial College.Pretty impressive.
Here's how she describes her view of the human genome.
The human genome.This is not looking good. Anyone who starts with the premise that noncoding DNA might all be junk is clearly way out of their depth in this debate. The claim that epigenetics might explain junk DNA is another dead giveaway. Looks like we're dealing with an amateur.
Here's the old model. The genome - our DNA - is vitally important because the genes code for the proteins that are essential for life.
Well yes, that's true. And if you like your ice cream only in vanilla, this may be a good enough description.
But allow your taste buds to wander and some fascinating new flavours may seduce you.
There are lots of situations where two things are genetically identical, but which aren't the same. This is the field of epigenetics, and it tells us that there must be more to us than just our DNA code. The science is weird, heretical and fascinating.
If the genes that code for proteins are so important, why do they comprise only 2% of the human genome? For years, the rest was dismissed as unimportant "junk DNA". But now we know that these neglected regions have a huge range of important functions.
Both epigenetics and junk DNA affect huge amounts of life on earth and have a big impact on human health.
I'm the author of The Epigenetics Revolution and Junk DNA: A Journey Through The Dark Matter Of The Genome, books aimed at a non-specialist readership, which discuss the amazing biology behind so much of life around us.
Go on, dive in. You won't regret it. And you won't think about the world in the same way ever again.
Junk DNA - The Basics.
Definition"Whoops" is right. This is 2015 and tons of stuff has been written about the definition of junk DNA and the history of the idea. It's pretty clear that Nassa Carey hasn't read any of it. [Stop Using the Term "Noncoding DNA:" It Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means] [Five Things You Should Know if You Want to Participate in the Junk DNA Debate ]
Junk DNA has traditionally been defined by what it isn't. It's the bits of the genome that don't code for the strings of amino acids that form proteins. It was dismissed for a long time as having no function. Which is a pretty classic example of the surprisingly common phenomenon in biology where, if we don't know something, we assume there is nothing to know. Whoops.
Fortunately, New Scientist has published a review of the upcoming book: An encyclopaedic guide to the dark genome. Let's see if the reviewer, Linda Geddes, will recognize the problem.
SNOW WHITE, the six-toed cat famously given to Ernest Hemingway by a ship's captain, did not get its extra digit as the result of a freak gene mutation.Oh dear. You don't have to read any further. Linda Geddes is as ignorant as Nessa Carey. (Unless by "recent" she means 45 years ago.)
In fact, extra fingers and toes in both cats and humans result from alterations in junk DNA – the 98 per cent of the genome that has no genes, doesn't code for proteins, and which was until recently dismissed as, well, junk. In the case of extra digits, a piece of regulatory DNA has mutated, "enhancing" the activity of a gene crucial to the development of hands and feet.
It's a formidable subject, but one that Carey, a former senior lecturer in molecular biology at Imperial College, London, is completely at home with. She does a great job of describing the politics of this controversial field. "At one extreme," she writes, "we have scientists claiming experimental proof is lacking to support sometimes sweeping claims. At the other are those who feel there is a whole generation of scientists (if not more) trapped in an outdated model and unable to see or understand the new order."I guess I'll have to buy the book in order to find out which category applies to me. I have a sneaky suspicion that I'm not going to be part of the "new order."
There's really no excuse for this. All you have to do is Google "junk DNA" or "noncoding DNA" and it takes you right to the Wikipedia article on Noncoding DNA. If either Nessa Carey or Linda Geddes had done this they would have been much more informed than they appear to be.
I wasn't going to write about this because I was afraid it would give Dan Graur a heart attack. However, I fear that he's going to find out about it anyway so it's not my fault.