Thursday, September 6, 2012

Everyone's excited about ENCODE

So how about that ENCODE?  Seems like it's the talk of the town right now in the world of creation/evolution.  According to the Nature paper, there's some biochemical function to about 80% of the genome, or to put it as they do in the abstract:
These data enabled us to assign biochemical functions for 80% of the genome, in particular outside of the well-studied protein-coding regions.
There's a lot of excited press coverage about these findings:

Encode study debunks 'junk DNA' theory
Bits of Mystery DNA, Far From 'Junk,' Play Crucial Role
Gigantic New Study Changes Everything We Knew About Human Genes

(I should note that last headline is an especially large pile of horse manure. Human genes are still made of DNA, right? Check. DNA is organized into chromosomes? Check. They still have the sequences the Human Genome Project determined? Check. There's still about twenty thousand human protein coding genes? Check. So this gigantic new study offers important insight into function, but really changes little if anything of what we already knew.)

There are those that feel very vindicated by these results.

Latest ENCODE Research Validates ID Predictions On Non-Coding Repertoire
Junk No More: ENCODE Project Nature Paper Finds "Biochemical Functions for 80% of the Genome"

And there are some who are miffed about all the hyperbole.

ENCODE hype? From now on I’ll just reply: #oniontest
ENCODE Leader Says that 80% of Our Genome Is Functional
A slightly different response to today’s ENCODE hype

Me?  It's cool science, no doubt about that.  Project leader Ewan Birney is to be commended.  No doubt about that either.  But I'm not sure the ENCODE results are worth all the attention they're getting in the creation/evolution world.

On the one hand, I don't think that function equates to design, nor do I think that design requires or predicts function.  They're not the same thing.  So even if the 80% figure is right, I don't think I care.  My understanding of genome design certainly didn't predict functionality for every nucleotide in the genome, and my understanding of function does not require me to hypothesize God (or an anonymous designer, if you must) as the proximal cause.  Read more about the function/design issue in previous posts:

Alu questions
Senter strikes again!
A fully functional vestigial organ?

Meanwhile, yes, the press and press releases are exaggerating and distorting things as usual.  Yes, it's annoying.  What bothers me more this time is this undercurrent I'm seeing that basically perceives this latest hyperbole as especially egregious because creationists will misunderstand the results and use them for propaganda purposes.  I hope no one is actually suggesting that scientists ought to modify the presentation of their results to prevent creationists from misusing them?  Perhaps even ... dare I say it? ... censor themselves to prevent creationists from taking advantage?  Because that really is starting to sound like an anticreationist conspiracy.

Now if you're just annoyed with hyperbole, I can appreciate that.  I too frequently rail against exaggerations by the popular press.  Perhaps you should write a letter to Nature?  Or maybe a whole paper documenting the exaggeration of the "junk DNA" myth?  Then you could put out your own press release and put another paper on your CV.  I'd even blog about your paper when it was published.  That would be groovy.

For now, that's all I have to say about ENCODE.  Bravo to the team, but a lot of us wish your press releases didn't prey upon misconceptions.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.