Yesterday the Boston Globe published an amazing and insightful article about DNA and what scientists are learning about the inner-workings of the cell. As it turns out, the more we learn, the more we realize how much more there is to learn.
“The picture that’s emerging” of how living cells actually operate and evolve “is so immensely more complicated than anyone imagined, it’s almost depressing,” Rigoutsos said.
One interesting thing that leapt out at me when reading this was the fact that, while many scientists now realize that it was a mistake to jump to the conclusion that there were massive amounts of “junk” in DNA (because they were trying to fit the research into a Darwinian model), they are on the verge of committing the same exact mistake all over again, this time with RNA.
No one knows what all that extra RNA is doing. It might be regulating genes in absolutely essential ways. Or it may be doing nothing of much importance: genetic busywork serving no real purpose.
Many researchers believe the truth falls somewhere in between.
“Half of it may be doing something very useful,” said Lander, who is also a professor of biology at MIT. “The other part may turn out to be, well, just junk – doing neither great good nor great harm.”
Knowing that senior fellow Jonathan Wells is working on a forthcoming book about genetics titled The End of the Genetic Paradigm, I e-mailed him and asked what he thought of the article. Here’s his response in full.
According to an article in yesterday’s Boston Globe, biologists have discovered that the small percentage of our DNA that codes for proteins is not as important as they once thought. Many cellular processes are due to non-coding stretches of DNA — or of RNA, or of something else entirely. The discoveries have precipitated what Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, calls a “scientific revolution.”
The news seems revolutionary because Collins and so many others have bought into neo-Darwinism, which assumes that embryo development is controlled by a “genetic program” in DNA. It is this assumption that justifies the neo-Darwinian belief that DNA mutations provide the raw materials for evolution. And it was this assumption that prompted Francis Crick, when he and James Watson deciphered the structure of DNA in 1953, to announce that they had “discovered the secret of life.”
Even in 1953, some biologists were skeptical that “DNA is the secret of life,” but their skepticism was largely buried by the neo-Darwinian steamroller that has been flattening biology ever since. Now it turns out that the skeptics were right. The more we learn from genome sequencing, the more obvious it becomes that there are more things in living cells than are dreamt of in neo-Darwinian philosophy.