Michael Eisen is an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Berkeley. He's best known, to me, as the brother of Jonathan Eisen.
Michael, like me and hundreds of other scientists, is upset by the ENCODE press releases. One of them is: Fast forward for biomedical research: ENCODE scraps the junk.
The hundreds of researchers working on the ENCODE project have revealed that much of what has been called 'junk DNA' in the human genome is actually a massive control panel with millions of switches regulating the activity of our genes. Without these switches, genes would not work – and mutations in these regions might lead to human disease. The new information delivered by ENCODE is so comprehensive and complex that it has given rise to a new publishing model in which electronic documents and datasets are interconnected.Here's the interesting thing. Many of us are upset about the press releases and the PR because we don't think the ENCODE data disproves junk DNA. Michael Eisen's perspective is entirely different. He's upset because, according to him, junk DNA was discredited years ago.
The problems start before the first line ends. As the authors undoubtedly know, nobody actually thinks that non-coding DNA is ‘junk’ any more. It’s an idea that pretty much only appears in the popular press, and then only when someone announces that they have debunked it. Which is fairly often. And has been for at least the past decade. So it is more than just intellectually lazy to start the story of ENCODE this way. It is dishonest – nobody can credibly claim this to be a finding of ENCODE. Indeed it was a clear sense of the importance of non-coding DNA that led to the ENCODE project in the first place. And yet, each of the dozens of news stories I read on this topic parroted this absurd talking point – falsely crediting ENCODE with overturning an idea that didn’t need to be overturned.Eisen is wrong, junk DNA is alive and well. In fact almost 90% of our genome is junk.
This is what makes science so much fun.