One day at work my boss Fred pulled me aside. Fred was NOT a happy camper:
“Perry, what did you say to the customer yesterday?”
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?”
“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.: CRISPR – the 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.