THIS Is What Michael Eisen Is Thinking!!!

Here's an excellent example of what's wrong with the way the ENCODE Consortium is interpreting their data. Congratulations to Michael Eisen! I wish I had said this: A neutral theory of molecular function.1

Read the whole thing very carefully and heed the lesson. Here's a excerpt,
I think a lot about Kimura, the neutral theory, and the salutary effects of clear null models every time I get involved in discussions about the function, or lack thereof, of biochemical events observed in genomics experiments, such as those triggered this week by publications from the ENCODE project.

It is easy to see the parallels between the way people talk about transcribed RNAs, protein-DNA interactions, DNase hypersensitive regions and what not, and the way people talked about sequence changes PK (pre Kimura). While many of the people carrying out RNA-seq, ChIP-seq, CLIP-seq, etc… have been indoctrinated with Kimura at some point in their careers, most seem unable to apply his lesson to their own work. The result is a field suffused with implicit or explicit thinking along the following lines:
I observed A bind to B. A would only have evolved to bind to B if it were doing something useful. Therefore the binding of A to B is “functional”.
One can understand the temptation to think this way. In the textbook view of molecular biology, everything is highly regulated. Genes are transcribed with a purpose. Transcription factors bind to DNA when they are regulating something. Kinases phosphorylate targets to alter their activity or sub-cellular location. And so on. Although there have always been lots of reasons to dismiss this way of thinking, until about a decade ago, this is what the scientific literature looked like. In the day where papers described single genes and single interactions, who would bother to publish a paper about a non-functional interaction they observed?

But experimental genomics blew this world of Mayberry molecular biology wide open. For example, when Mark Biggin and I started to do ChIP-chip experiments in Drosophila embryos, we found that factors were binding not just to their dozen or so non-targets, but the thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands of places across the genome. Having studied my Kimura, I just assumed that the vast majority of these interactions had evolved by chance – a natural, essential, consequence of the neutral fixation of nucleotide changes that happened to create transcription factor binding sites. And so I was shocked that almost everyone I talked to about this data assumed that every one of these binding events was doing something – we just hadn’t figured out what yet.


Rather than assuming – as so many of the ENCODE researchers apparently do – that the millions (or is it billions?) of molecular events they observe are a treasure trove of functional elements waiting to be understood, they should approach each and every one of them with Kimurian skepticism. We should never accept the existence or a molecule or the observation that it interacts with something as prima facia evidence that it is important. Rather we should assume that all such interactions are non-functional until proven otherwise, and develop better, compelling, ways to reject this null hypothesis.
Read the comments, especially the one from former colleague Chris Hogue on how to interpret phosphorylation of proteins and signal transduction. That's not going to be popular in my department!

I just have one small quibble with Michael's post. Not all textbooks describe the cell as if it were a finely tuned Swiss watch and not all textbooks take an adaptationist approach to evolution. Mine doesn't.

1. As a result of this post I've now relegated Jonathan Eisen to "brother of Michael Eisen" rather than the other way around. Sorry, Jonathan.
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