A week ago, a huge, painstakingly orchestrated PR campaign was timed to coincide with multiple publications of a long-term study by the ENCODE consortium in top-ranking journals. The ENCODE project (EP) is essentially the next stage after the Human Genome Project (HGP). The HGP sequenced all our DNA (actually a mixture of individual genomes); the EP is an attempt to define what all our DNA does by several circumstantial-evidence gathering and analysis techniques.
The EP results purportedly revolutionize our understanding of the genome by “proving” that DNA hitherto labeled junk is in fact functional and this knowledge will enable us to “maintain individual wellbeing” but also miraculously cure intractable diseases like cancer and diabetes.
Unlike the “arsenic bacteria” fiasco, the EP experiments were done carefully and thoroughly. The information unearthed and collated with this research is very useful, if only a foundation; as with the HGP, this cataloguing quest also contributed to development of techniques. What is way off are the claims, both proximal and distal.
A similar kind of “theory of everything” hype surrounded the HGP but in the case of the EP the hype has been ratcheted several fold, partly due to the increased capacity for rapid, saturating online dissemination. And science journalists who should know better (in Science, BBC, NY Times, The Guardian, Discover Magazine) made things worse by conflating junk, non-protein-coding and regulatory DNA.
Biologists – particularly those of us involved in dissecting RNA regulation – have known since the eighties that much of “junk” DNA has functions (to paraphrase Sydney Brenner, junk is not garbage). The EP results don’t alter the current view of the genome, they just provide a basis for further investigation; their definition of “functional” is “biochemically active” – two very different beasts; the functions (let alone any disease cures) will require exhaustive independent authentication of the EP batch results.