Junk DNA & My Foot-In-Mouth moment

One day at work my boss Fred pulled me aside. Fred was NOT a happy camper:

“Perry, what did you say to the customer foot_in_mouth_happymillermanyesterday?”

Oh-oh. Must’ve done something wrong.

“Um, I offered to help. Their indicator lamp assembly has a light bulb and two identical resistors. I sent the engineer a message:

‘Two resistors in a row is a bad idea. If it’s OK with you, we’ll swap your two resistors for one resistor of double the value. That will save you money and space.

“But he never replied back.”

The guy had called Fred instead, and chewed him out.

Now it was MY turn to get chewed out. Fred glared at me:

“Perry, did anybody ASK you your opinion?”

“Uh, no.”

“He called me yesterday. He was furious. In fact we almost lost his business.”


“He uses those two resistors because 600 volts would arc across one, but not two. The second, “redundant” resistor, the one you think is dumb, is an elegant way to solve the problem. And it only costs 2 cents.”

Fred continued: “Perry, do NOT offer our customers opinions ever again, unless they specifically ASK YOU what you think.”

Lucky I didn’t get fired. I never imagined my mistake that day would grant me a key insight on “Junk DNA.” But in fact a small group of very vocal scientists made the same mistake… for 40 years.

It wasn’t indicator lights, it was DNA. They proclaimed: “Your genome is full of useless repeated segments and leftover evolutionary garbage. 97% of your genes are Junk DNA.”

That run-in with Fred made me wary of that. Unless and until researchers can build a entire cell or an eye from scratch, they’re in no position to be certain that any of our DNA is “junk.”

Systems have delicate tradeoffs. Some have amazing performance but are extremely difficult to manufacture. Sometimes a minor change in materials would make a huge boost, but it’s made out of ‘unobtanium.’

Sometimes you have to make a compromise between 15 competing priorities. A sizable group of scientists have published an overwhelming amount of new evidence.

The ENCODE project (“Encyclopedia of DNA Elements”) was launched in 2003 to find all the functional elements of the Human Genome. The New York Times announced: “Bits of Mystery DNA, Far From ‘Junk,’ Play Crucial Role” and went on to say:

“The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as “junk” but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave. The discovery, considered a major medical and scientific breakthrough, has enormous implications for human health because many complex diseases appear to be caused by tiny changes in hundreds of gene switches.”

Science magazine’s report was entitled, “ENCODE Project Writes Eulogy for Junk DNA.” There is no such thing as junk when it comes to DNA.

But do you know what the biggest, most practical problem is with a “Junk DNA” theory?

How are you going to get anyone to study something that everyone thinks is junk, even though it’s not?

How are we ever going to get important funding for studying the genetics of birth defects, cancer, aging and disease when the secret is hidden in “junk” ?

We can only guess how much great research was halted in its tracks during the 40-year reign of Junk DNA. A two-generation shadow in the history of science. It’s time to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.

We’ve made the mistake long enough. Spread the word and let’s study ALL the genome in earnest – not just the parts we already understand.

P.S.: CRISPRthe technology that allows humans to edit DNA with razor precision, which is one of the biggest genetic advances of this century – came directly from parts of the genome that were considered “junk” for 3 decades.

Any scientist who’s still talking about Junk DNA in this day and age is a lazy scientist who needs to take their job more seriously – and stop passing judgment on things we do not yet understand.

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12 Responses

  1. DrCain says:

    Dear Perry,

    This article has truly gotten my attention.

    Is it happenstance that for all these many months of multiple emails I decided to take time in my insane schedule to read this article?

    Who knows? Well that answer is obvious per the Design of this site.

    My hat is off to you on the purpose of success through understanding.

    Often in my speeches, I state that we are tethered to technology and its advance to prove true, what most philosophical & theoretical arguments are far from wrong or error.

    These arguments are what pushes the proof of ideas into the lets duplicate it model of science to prove its validity.

    In school I said as a teenager “until you can tell me why it is there then taking it out ain’t so smart.” because medical science doesn’t see its purpose.

    We are a society that rises in the am and fall in the pm. We work on the solar mindset and plant in farming on a lunar mindset.
    Yet we have ideas and beliefs based the effects of both aspects in our lives: the sun and moon and their affects on earth and us. Demonstrated in solar and lunar calenders.

    It should stand to reason that science is the checks and balance of theory in many cases.

    But to put science as the end all be all of all things when our human Design and more, are far more complex and dynamic is at best beyond basic common sense.

    Science and Religion are as night and day as the need for them both.

    As we grow in the advent of more advance technologies and new sciences that are created to explain and explore far more complex ideas, it should be with an open mind not to label anything within the doorway of the universe as “Junk” lest we be the Creator.


    • Thanks for your great post. Until scientists can build a living cell from scratch they have no business hypothesizing that there is no need to study the parts of the cell they don’t understand.

  2. logicophilosophicus says:

    …so I read up on Alu (500,000 repeats) and ordered a few hundred thousand resistors…

  3. rshivmp39 says:

    All that we feel and contend in our way of conjecture and reckoning, may be termed as, “Human Understanding”. God or whatever ‘DOER’ agency may be operating for planning, initiation, operation, sustenance and junking in the ‘Known by now’ Universe’ or ‘Universes’, as they feel, appears to be done instantly since unknown ages but the miniscule awareness(called understanding or knowledge) of which reaches us, very gradually, over millenia – and we call it TREMENDOUS Scientific Adavances. Well, of course, that is the entrepreneurial way of going about digging into the very complex and perhaps perpetual secrets of our material surroundings, including our own bodies and their Biology. However, prying into fire with scant knowledge, when upsetting the ecological system status and stability on any front of observables, such as the genomes and DNAs of life forms is so hazardous, that it could result into an uncontrollable, “Mushroom Cloud” of changes and events, leading to man-induced liquidation of life and, in particular, the human race. We already have on our plate, the insurmountable issues of antagonistic ecological changes, imbalance of impending life-form supremacy,
    nuclear energy damage and metamorphosis of the earth and not to forget, the continual, unpredictable threat from meteorites. Let us restrain our scientific curiosity and achievement frenzy by being
    extra careful about Cern LHC games and genetic engineering acrobatics and think of, “Survival and Sustenance” of the humanity as a greater priority over the intellectual longings of a handful wise groups. Our Fingertips are still too infantile to fiddle with Cosmic Fingerprints. The notions of
    Ether, Space Distortions, Universal Relativity, Strings etc., are by now, that is, ages of human history, just arriving at the Predicted and Detected(rather Sensed) Higg Boson, Dark Energy-Matter
    etc.. We are on the verge of realising, if anything like Vacuum or Empty Space exists at all. If God(that is That Thing) meant to create Things, why should He waste his time and energy in creating Nothingness? So also with, “Junk”. To be good boys is better than to be overwise. To live and let live is healthier thinking than bereavement through error. Postpone tickling Genomes and DNAs till after schooling. No progress in venturesome endeavours is preferable to all encompassing disgrace. They say, “God helps those, who help themselves”. Why should the faith not apply to self-destruction?

  4. Tom LaFleur says:

    Interesting site, I like the name Cosmic Footprints. Your observations about (so called) Junk DNA are most likely correct. It was also correct for you to question the multiple resistors, but your boss missed the boat when he admonished you to never offer your opinion to customers again. The only thing you could have done better was to ask the customer what the purpose of the dual resistors was. A simple sounding thing, but one that is often not done because of it’s difficulty.

    Asking pertinent questions gets you information and information maps the terrain to help you spot elegant solutions that were previously unseen.

    The question to ask about the extra DNA sequences is what is there about the cell or the bacteria that could be handled by this material. An obvious line of study would be to discover if it can account for the genetic memory of the cell. The cell (and bacteria) seem to remember a lot (in fact) all of our past. It each cell knows how to construct any part of our body and any part that has existed throughout time (our entire history). This take a lot of memory which would probably fill all of our libraries several times over using our current encoding schemes. Obviously the cells have this information at their disposal and they do not have huge libraries to access, so they must be using an encoding scheme that is much more efficient than ours currently is. They don’t use a digital system!

    So, what else is there. We are beginning to get some clues with our research into quantum computers which indicates it is orders of magnitude more efficient than our digital approach. It is like a hologram is to a picture. The hologram can give us a three dimensional rotatable view that can be indistinguishable from the original scene. A picture is a single view only. If you cut a picture in half, it is half gone. If you cut a hologram in half, the scene is still all there, but not quite as sharp.

    It is like our subconscious mind which operates like a quantum computer and so allows us to store all of our history and solve real world problems. We never forget anything, but the problem is not remembering, but recalling that memory to our “conscious” mind which is like the I/O portion of a computer and conducts the communication with the outside world using digital communication protocols which can never express quantum ideas accurately. The subconscious is like the main processor and memory and hard drive storage of a computer and has not direct access to the outside world, but that is where main computing power is.

    The subconscious mind provides quantum solutions (to problems),
    which mains it provides all solutions for all universes which is infinite so the problems is not having a solution, but being able to sort through the solutions to find those relevant our “real” world and the limitations we impose, cost, timing, etc. as “Objectives” or “goals”.

    It will probably be possible to “read” our history from our cell’s DNA once we have established our ability to construct quantum computers. Our own brains appear to generate quantum fields using electrical currents generated at a molecular level. I expect we will find that bacteria (and cells) have long ago developed quantum fields for storage and computation that are generated at the level of atoms.

  5. Andreb says:
    • First of all, the ENCODE project is a MAJOR embarrassment for the Junk DNA crowd. Pro Junk DNA people are almost all traditional neo-darwinists who insist that natural selection is the only guiding force in evolution. They have egg all over their face. The Darwinists proclaimed “97% junk,” and the creationists and ID guys said they were wrong all along. The design guys were right and the Darwinists were wrong.

      The negative reaction to ENCODE is called “damage control.” You cannot possibly expect anything else but a loud outcry.

      Second, to the degree that the results of ENCODE are still ambiguous, we can make our bets today as to which way the wind is going to blow tomorrow. 10 years from now, is that 80% figure going to become 90%? Is the 80% that’s “merely biological activity” going to progress and become “genuine function”? Or is the 80% figure going to drop down to 70% and 60% as scientists back away from ENCODE’s original claim?

      Personally I’ll bet ALL of my credibility on % functionality going up, up, up. The number will move asymptotically closer to 100% with each passing year. It will always go up, never down.

      Third, the proposition that DNA is non-functional is contrary to the very aims of science and medicine. The only presumption you can make that ever drives scientific inquiry further is that it does something, that it is there for a reason.

      If you don’t presume that, you won’t study it and you’ll never make the discovery. The Junk DNA hypothesis is a vote for taking jobs away from scientists. Which is politically stupid. How are you going to get a $10 million research grant to study “junk”?

      And what right do you have to proclaim it’s “junk” if you haven’t studied it in the first place?

      I think the true indicator here is the level of name-calling, blame and accusation that’s coming from the pro-Junk DNA side. Go back and re-read these articles and notice the maturity level of the pro-Junk DNA arguments. Their insecurity is palpable.

    • Please notice that any time a scientist admits that part of the genome has biological “activity” yet still insists it has no “function” (because none has yet been confirmed, or because it is still poorly understood) is abdicating his #1 job as a scientist, which is to discover all causes and effects connected with that activity.

      We are centuries away from fully understanding the genome, being able to connect every dot and explain why and how every coding sequence is there. Junk DNA is a colossal mistake, it’s sort of like someone in 1000AD saying “We can already see all the stars, why would anyone ever need a telescope?”

      • mcblanc says:

        LOL–Wonderful Analogy !!

        I also LUVED Your observation… “The Junk DNA hypothesis is a vote for taking jobs away from scientists.”…

        And would just like to add the note that VERY OFTEN The Ones discrediting the work &/or steering that funding &/or taking those jobs away from One Field of Science ARE ALSO Scientists… but they think that they’re in Another (UN-Related) Field of Inquiry competing for scarce dollars in a harsh & unforgiving world.

        The “sibling rivalry” among the various branches of science would be HILARIOUS–if it wasn’t also so very short-sighted & wasteful & too often–ignorant & ugly–to boot.

        Anybody whose mind is so closed that their fundamental M.O. is a “War Mentality”–seeing Everyone Else as either their Tool or their Rival–and studying the world in search of its weaknesses to exploit for their own personal gain… has NOT the open eyes nor ears nor mind necessary for the kinds of Open Inquiry that lead to the sorts of discoveries that truly advance the state of this world for us all.

        Still & All…
        Sometimes… IF/When “Your Team” Appears To Be Surrounded By Warmongers–You May Need To Call UP A Few Warmongers of Your Own To Confront Them…

        After All–
        It’s Statistically IMPOSSIBLE For US All To Make Our Living Being “The Cubs”…

        SUM of US GOTSTA PLAY TO WIN !!!

    • Cheese says:

      Kodak had a relevant moment. They laid off a lot of people and installed new managers. In the photocopier business a new manager removed an assembly step of spraypainting a component flat black, to save time and money. Image quality plummeted and Kodak copiers lost their preeminent position in the market. Eventually someone figured out that the problem was an unwanted reflection of light off a shiny component, getting into the imaging optics — and that the solution was to spraypaint that one component flat black. They’d fired the people who knew that, and the new manager had incorrectly assumed the step was useless.

  6. pat says:

    Your entire premise is a strawman perry. People were discussing very specific aspects of the genome (ie they didnt mean everything that didn’t encode protein for instance) when they used the word juñk. You’re misrepresenting the history in order to make yourself look like some sort of innovative outside the box rebel. I’ll just let the ID guys and their no junk claims fight it out with the creationists and their genetic entropy claims while real scientists do what they have always done. Refine and improve their understanding independent of what fringe folks do or say.

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