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Oxford Journal: “The Days of ‘Junk DNA’ Are Over ”

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Photo credit: xaviercanserra, via Pixabay.

Thanks to a friend for passing along a new article at the Oxford University Press journal Genome Biology & Evolution (GBE), by several authors (from German and French universities), which opened its discussion section with the sentence “The days of junk DNA are over.” 

That by itself would be significant. Equally noteworthy, however, is the fact that GBE social media editor Casey McGrath — an evolutionary biologist employed by the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE), the academic sponsor of GBE and its sister journal Molecular Biology and Evolution — wrote a Highlight article calling attention to the observation that “Junk DNA” is “No More.” McGrath’s article, “‘Junk DNA’ No More: Repetitive Elements as Vital Sources of Flatworm Variation,” is open access.

None of this is accidental. Since project ENCODE provoked outrage among evolutionary biologists such as Dan Graur over a decade ago, there has been a concerted campaign to defend the notion of junk DNA, often explicitly in the context of anti-intelligent design sentiments. Graur, at the University of Houston, famously argued in 2013, in a major speech in Chicago to the SMBE, that “if ENCODE is right, then evolution is wrong.” 

Younger evolutionary biologists such as Casey McGrath are watching all this. We should not assume McGrath has any ID sympathies; almost certainly, she does not. But questions about the possible functional roles of apparent “junk” DNA are just too interesting to allow oneself to be intimidated into silence by academic bullies such as Graur.