This is in the New York Times today:
The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as “junk” but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave. […]
The findings, which are the fruit of an immense federal project involving 440 scientists from 32 laboratories around the world, will have immediate applications for understanding how alterations in the non-gene parts of DNA contribute to human diseases, which may in turn lead to new drugs. […]
As scientists delved into the “junk” — parts of the DNA that are not actual genes containing instructions for proteins — they discovered a complex system that controls genes. At least 80 percent of this DNA is active and needed. The result of the work is an annotated road map of much of this DNA, noting what it is doing and how. It includes the system of switches that, acting like dimmer switches for lights, control which genes are used in a cell and when they are used, and determine, for instance, whether a cell becomes a liver cell or a neuron.
“It’s Google Maps,” said Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute, a joint research endeavor of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In contrast, the project’s predecessor, the Human Genome Project, which determined the entire sequence of human DNA, “was like getting a picture of Earth from space,” he said. “It doesn’t tell you where the roads are, it doesn’t tell you what traffic is like at what time of the day, it doesn’t tell you where the good restaurants are, or the hospitals or the cities or the rivers.”
And the discovery that junk DNA is not junk is contrary to what researches anticipated:
Human DNA is “a lot more active than we expected, and there are a lot more things happening than we expected,” said Ewan Birney of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory-European Bioinformatics Institute, a lead researcher on the project. […]
“Most of the changes that affect disease don’t lie in the genes themselves; they lie in the switches,” said Michael Snyder, a Stanford University researcher for the project, called Encode, for Encyclopedia of DNA Elements.
And that, said Dr. Bradley Bernstein, an Encode researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, “is a really big deal.” He added, “I don’t think anyone predicted that would be the case.”
Isn’t that interesting? Reigning theory, and what you would predict from reigning theory, doesn’t match what is actually observed.
And what might that reigning theory be? Isn’t it evolutionary theory? Hasn’t it long been assumed that there are elements within DNA that are the junk remnants of our evolutionary history, and that there must be a lot of them? And weren’t they supposed to be located in the 95% of our DNA that does not produce proteins?
Surprise, surprise! At least 80% of our junk DNA is not junk. There may be junk remnants in the 95% of our DNA that doesn’t produce proteins, but there may not be nearly as many of them as supposed.
I’m not advocating intelligent design here (though it certainly doesn’t hurt the case that one might make for it), but noting that when we make broad assumptions based on a crude extrapolation of a rather general theory, we can find ourselves far from reality. There’s nothing in the above discovery that an evolutionary biologist can’t account for, of course, but the fact that it’s surprising on the standard evolutionary narrative heretofore ought to be remarked upon, and not swept under the rug.
Mark a point for intelligent design proponents here. They’ve long predicted that junk DNA would prove not to be junk. It’s only fair to notice it.
Here’s a biologist briefly explaining junk DNA and speculating on the future of research into it.
And here’s an intelligent design book trailer, made over a year ago, that professes to doubt what, until quite recently, has been the consensus among biologists as to what junk DNA is.