Scientists speak up: “On the immortality of television sets”

By weird tradition, scientists use dull, obscure language when they criticize other scientists. Six scientists chose to stray outside that tradition. In a new paper, they criticize the people who did “The ENCODE Project: ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements”. They pull few, if any, punches. Thanks to Rolf (“pull no punches”) Zwaan for bringing this to our attention:

On the immortality of television sets: “function” in the human genome according to the evolution-free gospel of ENCODE,” Dan Graur, Yichen Zheng, Nicholas Price, Ricardo B. R. Azevedo, Rebecca A. Zufall and Eran Elhaik, Genome, Biology and Evolution, epub February 20, 2013.  The authors, at the University of Houston and at Johns Hopkins University, write:

ENCODE_logo“A recent slew of ENCODE Consortium publications, specifically the article signed by all Consortium members, put forward the idea that more than 80% of the human genome is functional. This claim flies in the face of current estimates according to which the fraction of the genome that is evolutionarily conserved through purifying selection is under 10%. Thus, according to the ENCODE Consortium, a biological function can be maintained indefinitely without selection, which implies that at least 80 − 10 = 70% of the genome is perfectly invulnerable to deleterious mutations, either because no mutation can ever occur in these “functional” regions, or because no mutation in these regions can ever be deleterious. This absurd conclusion was reached through various means…

“Here, we detail the many logical and methodological transgressions involved in assigning functionality to almost every nucleotide in the human genome. The ENCODE results were predicted by one of its authors to necessitate the rewriting of textbooks. We agree, many textbooks dealing with marketing, mass-media hype, and public relations may well have to be rewritten….

“All functional entities in the universe can be rendered nonfunctional by the ravages of time, entropy, mutation, and what have you. Unless a genomic functionality is actively protected by selection, it will accumulate deleterious mutations and will cease to be functional. The absurd alternative, which unfortunately was adopted by ENCODE, is to assume that no deleterious mutations can ever occur in the regions they have deemed to be functional. Such an assumption is akin to claiming that a television set left on and unattended will still be in working condition after a million years because no natural events, such as rust, erosion, static electricity, and earthquakes can affect it.”