ENCODE's 'junk DNA' findings renew debate about creation, evolution

Published: Friday, Oct. 19 2012 10:59 p.m. MDT

New research findings on DNA have not only heightened interest in and enthusiasm for human genome research, but also fanned the flames of the debate between proponents of creationism or intelligent design and believers in Darwinism or evolution.

Associated Press

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New research findings on DNA have not only heightened interest in and enthusiasm for human genome research, but also fanned the flames of the debate between proponents of creationism or intelligent design and believers in Darwinism or evolution.

Both sides are digging into their positions, but concede that the new debate hinges in part on the interpretation of the word "function."

On one side are Darwinists who have bolstered their arguments against a creator in part with studies that show at most 5 percent of human DNA is "useful." On the other side are faith bloggers who for the past week have hailed, as a counterpoint, a new study that seems to show that 80 percent of DNA is "functional."

The new study — The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Project — is a collaboration by nearly 450 scientists worldwide to determine what all the parts of DNA do, following up on the Human Genome Project completed a decade ago. Recently, more than 30 papers in prominent journals heralded aspects of ENCODE findings, and the project is expected to underpin ongoing research well into this century. But a study published in Nature gained the most attention and launched debate because of what has proven to be a hot-point sentence: "These data enabled us to assign biochemical functions for 80 percent of the genome," the researchers said.

The Human Genome Project had catalogued 3 billion bits of information and found 20,000 genes crucial to human biology. But as much as 95 percent of DNA was suspected of being "junk." That word "junk," by the way, was nearly as controversial during that first go round as "function" has become this time.

As John Timmer of Ars Technica sees it — and he's far from alone, if you stroll the web looking at reactions — the significance of that much-debated statement "hinged on a much less widely reported item: the definition of 'biochemical function' used by the authors."

Creation vs. evolution

Adherents of a view that embraces creation of the world by God hail the finding as disproving evolution claims that the junk DNA shows random mutations and leftovers no intelligent designer would employ. Those who hold an evolutionary view counter that nothing's changed, "function" was a poor choice of words and what did they mean by it, anyway.

"This is actually a huge can of worms, but I think I can boil it down to two basic issues, design and function, both of which are really nonspecific," Todd Wood, an associate professor of science and director of the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College, wrote to the Deseret News when asked to help sort out the arguments. "That vagueness is a large source of the debate."

DNA kicks off a process that can create proteins which, like stable RNA, cause chemical reactions in cells that influence human physiology. But they may not be vitally important to life. Causing a heart to beat trumps growing hair. When it comes to gene function, carrying nutrients across a cell membrane is not the same as "keeping my brain alive," Wood said. So, when researchers announced 80 percent of the humane genome is "functional," it's natural to ask how they define the word.

"Since the project used a bare minimal definition of functional, they expose themselves to lots of very legitimate debate over how much of the genome is really functional in the important, life-giving sense," wrote Wood, who calls himself a new-earth creationist. "We can say for certain that ENCODE did not show that 80 percent of the genome has an 'important biological function.'"

It's a problem that Ewan Birney, one of ENCODE's lead researchers, acknowledged. He said he initially argued a press release should say about 80 percent of the genome has biochemical function and that at least 20 percent of the genome is functional. But he worried the two numbers and the distinction would be lost.

But, notes NC Times writer Bradley J. Fikes: "Using only one number also caused confusion in the popular press, which incorrectly interpreted the 80 percent number as the amount of proven-necessary DNA in the human genome."

Still debating

Over time, some scientists have accepted a theory of "junk DNA" that says some, even perhaps most human DNA has no function. Pro-evolution writers like Richard Dawkins, author of "The Greatest Show on Earth," scoff at the idea that a creator would do that. "It stretches even their creative ingenuity to make a convincing reason why an intelligent designer should have created a pseudogene — a gene that does absolutely nothing and gives every appearance of being a superannuated version of a gene that used to do something — unless he was deliberately setting out to fool us."

Creationists insisted functions would eventually be found for so-called junk sequences. Last week, many of them claimed vindication.

"As for me, I'm not sure I follow the reasoning here and that's what bothers me," said Wood. "First, why should I think that every aspect of design has to have a 'function'? ... What use is a Statue of Liberty or a painting of soup cans? It seems to me that insisting that designs must be functional is sort of like a person who goes to an art museum and constantly complains, 'What's that for?' "

Wood also noted that, like a creationist, an evolutionary biologist would predict more functionality in DNA, since wasting energy to perpetuate a mostly useless genome goes against Darwinian principles of selection. The arguments volley back and forth between sides.

"Given my inability to make a coherent argument out of all this, it seems to me that a lot of this boils down to semantics. Some people like to say that 'junk DNA' precludes 'design,' which prompts others to insist that DNA must be 'functional' and therefore 'designed,' " Wood said, adding his understanding of design doesn't demand a specific degree of functional design. The questions leave him wondering "if ENCODE is really a victory for anyone," he said.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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