Recent findings by ENCODE regarding Junk DNA has drastically reshaped our understanding of the genome and is challenging established dogmas in evolutionary theory.
When the Human Genome Project finished mapping the human genome in 2003 it effectively unearthed the language of Life – the most complex programming language in existence. But reading this ‘book’ comprising of over three billion letters required comprehension of the inherent grammar, a task limited by computing power and software analytics researchers had access to.
Nearly ten years later, ENCODE(Encyclopedia of DNA Elements—comprising of 442 scientists and data technicians— after five years of toiling, has published thirty research papers earlier in September, after exploring unchartered territory in the human genomic map: ‘Junk’ DNA.
ENCODE has found that these inactive fragments are far more biochemically active than previously thought. Ian Sample, science correspondent for the Guardian summarizes ENCODE’s findings neatly thus: “The majority of our DNA isn’t making proteins to build cells…it’s controlling how genes work. They’re acting like switches, turning them off/on when necessary –like volume controls, turning a gene ‘up’ or ‘down’.”
Prior estimates were that less than 2 percent of our genome actually affected us. The study has pushed the envelope to as much as 80 percent. Ewan Birney, the team’s lead coordinator thinks it “likely that 80 percent will go to 100 percent.”
But such stats are being downplayed by mainstream skeptics. Michael White, Biologist at Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology thinks that ENCODE’s results “can be suggestive of important functions, but do not by themselves demonstrate that a region of the genome is doing something useful for us… The widely reported claim of debunked junk DNA is simply wrong.” In other words, coordinated biochemical activity does not account for any tangible physiological trait being affected.
Ire is also being directed at the media: evolutionary biologists excoriating irresponsible science journalists for sensationalism, and misrepresenting how science really works to us lesser mortals.
There was nothing to debunk, since scientists long suspected parts of the genomic dark matter served some purpose. The question remains how much, according to them, and if any of it accumulated by accident. Furthermore, ENCODE ‘only’ looked at 147 types of cells while the human body has several thousand.
ENCODE also estimated four million ‘switches’ regulating our genes like an operating system, deciding to what degree particular ones are expressed. And transcribed a ‘map’ with newfound biochemical landmarks, freely making the results available to independent researchers and medicine men worldwide. ENCODE’s achievement is on par with the recent Mars landing—as technical feat and in terms of significance— yet it’s not getting the deserved attention beyond medical and bioinformatics circles. And the reason is theological:
‘Junk DNA’ since it was coined in the seventies by Dr Susumu Ohno— who called them “extinct genes”—has been heralded as scientific ‘proof’ for evolution and the non-existence of an intelligent Creator. In that it’proves’ life was an accumulation of fortunate accidents, which happened through trial and error. Debunk it and evolutionary theory falls apart. Creationism wins.
In a 2009 interview, Birney himself said while the investigation was ongoing – “The reason why theoreticians of evolutionary biology will poo-poo it is that evolution isn’t supposed to have foresight.” Evolution according to current dogma, is blind and without plan. And if ‘science’ and ‘faith’ are shown to intersect somehow, the scientific world will lose face surely. An imagined score line will read SCIENCE – 0. THE LORD – 100.
ENCODE’s findings, for some in the academic community is confirmation for what was already suspected. That evolutionary theory is at best a compromise. That nature is far more ‘thoughtful’ than our current science can fathom.
Bradley Bernstein, one of ENCODE’s researchers found the idea of four million switches nigh incomprehensible and the DNA “wiring system” “inconceivably intricate.” Yet we live in a wireless world. We know genes communicate with each other across great distances. And, the wire analogy marks an under appreciation of how intricate nature is…
Like the recent god particle affair, ENCODE has opened up a new universe, not of the stars but inside our own bodies. It’s shown how sophisticated machines our bodies really are, and how limited our current understanding is.