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Francis Collins Changes His Tune On “Junk DNA”

I’m currently reading Francis Collins’ latest book, The Language of Life — DNA And The Revolution In Personalised Medicine. I have to confess to a certain element of surprise when I read this statement in chapter 1 of his book:
The discoveries of the past decade, little known to most of the public, have completely overturned much of what used to be taught in high school biology. If you thought the DNA molecule comprised thousands of of genes but far more “junk DNA”, think again.
Is this really the same Francis Collins who wrote The Language of God, in which he tells us that it “strains credulity” to think that more than a few pieces of “junk DNA” could be functional in the cell? On page 9 he comments on the constitution of the genome, noting that exons and introns of protein-coding genes add up together to about 30% of the genome. But here’s the astonishing thing, coming from Collins. Regarding the long segments of DNA that lie between genes that don’t code for protein, he tells us,
These regions are not just filler, however. They contain many of the signals that are needed to instruct a nearby gene about whether it should be on or off at a given developmental time in a given tissue. Furthermore, we are learning that there may be thousands of genes hanging out in these so-called deserts that don’t code for protein at all. They are copied into RNA, but those RNA molecules are never translated — instead, they serve some other important function.
He then goes on to talk about functionality which has now been ascribed to transposable elements. I’m sure glad that Francis Collins is beginning to change his tune on this issue! One can’t help but think that the efforts of ID proponents, which has in large measure popularised the notion that “junk DNA” isn’t in fact junk, over the last decade have had a part to play in this. The evidence continues to pile in, documenting increasingly more and more instances of functionality with regards these non-coding sequences. Like Darwinism, the more we learn in biology it seems the more untenable the “junk DNA” paradigm becomes. Francis Collins’ “darwin-of-the-gaps” has certainly shrunk several dozen fold since he wrote The Language of God in 2006.
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6 Responses to Francis Collins Changes His Tune On “Junk DNA”

  1. If DNA codes only for proteins then that is not sufficient to explain how random mutations can build new body plans.

    I know Stephen Meyer has opined that the body plan must be somehwere other than in the genome.

    Could the body plan somehow be encoded in the “junk” DNA? Or is it even encoded in some higher level of organization?

    Until science knows how the body plan of an ogranism can be modified, Darwin’s theory is mere speculation.

  2. NeilBJ:

    If DNA codes only for proteins then that is not sufficient to explain how random mutations can build new body plans.

    One protein at a time.

    NelBJ:

    I know Stephen Meyer has opined that the body plan must be somehwere other than in the genome.

    Meyer, Sermonti, Denton.

    NeilBJ:

    Could the body plan somehow be encoded in the “junk” DNA? Or is it even encoded in some higher level of organization?

    Higher level- most likley infused throughtout the entire cell with the DNA just a “workhorse” similar to the various bus lines in a computer. mRNAs from one bus, snRNAs from another, tRNAs from yet another (yada yada yada)- all organized by different layers of information.

  3. 3

    His first book gave me the distinct impression he had not engaged any of the opposing views on the subject.

    Like he had read Ken Miller and wrote the thing in an afternoon.

  4. The body plan must be in the cyto-architecture/mebrane of the cell. (In the oocyte in higher animals.) Otherwise how would the proteins produced by the ribosomes “know” where to go and how would the the new cells formed by oocytic division “know” where to go as they differentiate into the various body parts. If/when this is discovered it would kill Darwinism full stop.

  5. mad doc,

    The body plan is part of the software – yes actual software. The hardware aids the software- it carries out the instructions.

    The whole cell is like a hard drive- a 3 dimensional hard drive.

    When Venter made his synthetic cell he just replaced the DNA- programmable hardware/ firmware. The synthesized DNA was then programmed by the cell. So if I had the money I would run a program that would see what is the maximum amount of existing cellular stuff- Venter just did the DNA- that can be removed and replaced with a synthetic version. That should guide me to where the software/ information is.

  6. More from Francis Collins (page 293 of his new book):

    It turns out that only about 1.5 percent of the human genome is involved in coding for protein. But that doesn’t mean the rest is “junk DNA.” A number of exciting new discoveries about the human genome should remind us not to become complacent in our understanding of this marvelous instruction book. For instance, it has recently become clear that there is a whole family of RNA molecules that do not code for protein. These so-called non-coding RNAs are capable of carrying outa host of important functions, including modifying the efficiency by which other RNAs are translated. In addition, our understanding of how genes are regulated is undergoing dramatic revision, as the signals embedded in the DNA molecule and the proteins that bind to them are rapidly being elucidated. The complexity of this network of regulatory information is truly mind-blowing, and has given rise to a whole new branch of biomedical research, sometimes referred to as “systems biology.”

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