The books are ...
The Deeper Genome: Why there is more to the human genome than meets the eye, by John Parrington, (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press), 2015. ISBN:978-0-19-968873-9.You really need to read the review for yourselves but here's a few teasers.
Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome, by Nessa Carey, (New York, United States: Columbia University Press), 2015. ISBN:978-0-23-117084-0.
If taken uncritically, these texts can be expected to generate even more confusion in a field that already has a serious problem when it comes to communicating the best understanding of the science to the public.Parrington claims that noncoding DNA was thought to be junk and Georgi replies,
However, no knowledgeable person has ever defended the position that 98 % of the human genome is useless. The 98 % figure corresponds to the fraction of it that lies outside of protein coding genes, but the existence of distal regulatory elements, as nicely narrated by the author himself, has been at this point in time known for four decades, and there have been numerous comparative genomics studies pointing to a several-fold larger than 2% fraction of the genome that is under selective constraint.I agree. That's a position that I've been trying to advertise for several decades and it needs to be constantly reiterated since there are so many people who have fallen for the myth.
Georgi goes on to explain where Parringtons goes wrong about the ENCODE results. This critique is devastating, coming, as it does, from an author of the most relevant papers.1 My only complaint about the review is that George doesn't reveal his credentials. When he quotes from those papers—as he does many times—he should probably have mentioned that he is an author of those quotes.
Georgi goes on to explain four main arguments for junk DNA: genetic load, the C-value Paradox, transposons (selfish DNA), and modern evolutionary theory. I like this part since it's similar to the Five Things You Should Know if You Want to Participate in the Junk DNA Debate. The audience of this journal is teachers and this is important information that they need to know, and probably don't.
Still, despite a few unfortunate mistakes, The Deeper Genome is well written and gets many of its facts right, even if they are not interpreted properly. This is in stark contrast with Nessa Carey’s Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome. Nessa Carey has a PhD in virology and has in the past been a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology at Imperial College, London. However, Junk DNA is a book not written at an academic level but instead intended for very broad audience, with all the consequences that the danger of dumbing it down for such a purpose entails.It gets worse. Nessa Carey claims that scientists used to think that all noncoding DNA was junk but recent discoveries have discredited that view. Georgi sets her straight with,
Of course, scientists have had a very good idea why so much of our DNA does not code for proteins, and they have had that understanding for decades, as outlined above. Only by completely ignoring all that knowledge could it have been possible to produce many of the chapters in the book. The following are referred to as junk DNA by Carey, with whole chapters dedicated to each of them (Table 3).You would think that this is something that doesn't have to be explained to biology teachers but the evidence suggests otherwise. One of those teachers recently reviewed Nessa Carey's book very favorably in the journal The American Biology Teacher and another high school teacher reveals his confusion about the subject in the comments to my post [see Teaching about genomes using Nessa Carey's book: Junk DNA].
The inclusion of tRNAs and rRNAs in the list of “previously thought to be junk” DNA is particularly baffling given that they have featured prominently as critical components of the protein synthesis machinery in all sorts of basic high school biology textbooks for decades, not to mention the role that rRNAs and some of the other noncoding RNAs on that list play in many “RNA world” scenarios for the origin of life. How could something that has so often been postulated to predate the origin of DNA as the carrier of genetic information (Jeffares et al. 1998; Fox 2010) and that must have been of critical importance both before and after that be referred to as “junk”?
It's good that Georgi Marinov makes this point forcibly.
Now I'm going to leave you with an extended quote from Georgi Marinov's review. Coming from a young scientist, this is very potent and it needs to be widely disseminated. I agree 100%.
The reason why scientific results become so distorted on their way from scientists to the public can only be understood in the socioeconomic context in which science is done today. As almost everyone knows at this point, science has existed in a state of insufficient funding and ever increasing competition for limited resources (positions, funding, and the small number of publishing slots in top scientific journals) for a long time now. The best way to win that Darwinian race is to make a big, paradigm shifting finding. But such discoveries are hard to come by, and in many areas might actually never happen again—nothing guarantees that the fundamental discoveries in a given area have not already been made. ... This naturally leads to a publishing environment that pretty much mandates that findings are framed in the most favorable and exciting way, with important caveats and limitations hidden between the lines or missing completely. The author is too young to have directly experienced those times, but has read quite a few papers in top journals from the 1970s and earlier, and has been repeatedly struck by the difference between the open discussion one can find in many of those old articles and the currently dominant practices.It's not easy to explain these things to a general audience, especially an audience that has been inundated with false information and false ideas. I'm going to give it a try but it's taking a lot more effort than I imagined.
But that same problem is not limited to science itself, it seems to be now prevalent at all steps in the chain of transmission of findings, from the primary literature, through PR departments and press releases, and finally, in the hands of the science journalists and writers who report directly to the lay audience, and who operate under similar pressures to produce eye-catching headlines that can grab the fleeting attention of readers with ever decreasing ability to concentrate on complex and subtle issues. This leads to compound overhyping of results, of which The Deeper Genome is representative, and to truly surreal distortion of the science, such as what one finds in Nessa Carey’s Junk DNA.
The field of functional genomics is especially vulnerable to these trends, as it exists in the hard-to-navigate context of very rapid technological changes, a potential for the generation of truly revolutionary medical technologies, and an often difficult interaction with evolutionary biology, a controversial for a significant portion of society topic. It is not a simple subject to understand and communicate given all these complexities while in the same time the potential and incentives to mislead and misinterpret are great, and the consequences of doing so dire. Failure to properly communicate genomic science can lead to a failure to support and develop the medical breakthroughs it promises to deliver, or what might be even worse, to implement them in such a way that some of the dystopian futures imagined by sci-fi authors become reality. In addition, lending support to anti-evolutionary forces in society by distorting the science in a way that makes it appear to undermine evolutionary theory has profound consequences that given the fundamental importance of evolution for the proper understanding of humanity’s place in nature go far beyond making life even more difficult for teachers and educators of even the general destruction of science education. Writing on these issues should exercise the needed care and make sure that facts and their best interpretations are accurately reported. Instead, books such as The Deeper Genome and Junk DNA are prime examples of the negative trends outlined above, and are guaranteed to only generate even deeper confusion.
1. Georgi Marinov is an author on the original ENCODE paper that claimed 80% of our genome is functional (ENCODE Project Consortium, 2012) and the paper where the ENCODE leaders retreated from that claim (Kellis et al., 2014).
ENCODE Project Consortium (2012) An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome. Nature, 48957-74. [doi: 10.1038/nature11247]
Kellis, M., Wold, B., Snyder, M.P., Bernstein, B.E., Kundaje, A., Marinov, G.K., Ward, L.D., Birney, E., Crawford, G.E., and Dekker, J. (2014) Defining functional DNA elements in the human genome. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 111:6131-6138. [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318948111]