The onion test.

I am not sure how official this is, but here is a term I would like to coin right here on my blog: “The onion test”.

The onion test is a simple reality check for anyone who thinks they have come up with a universal function for non-coding DNA1. Whatever your proposed function, ask yourself this question: Can I explain why an onion needs about five times more non-coding DNA for this function than a human?

The onion, Allium cepa, is a diploid (2n = 16) plant with a haploid genome size of about 17 pg. Human, Homo sapiens, is a diploid (2n = 46) animal with a haploid genome size of about 3.5 pg. This comparison is chosen more or less arbitrarily (there are far bigger genomes than onion, and far smaller ones than human), but it makes the problem of universal function for non-coding DNA clear2.

Further, if you think perhaps onions are somehow special, consider that members of the genus Allium range in genome size from 7 pg to 31.5 pg. So why can A. altyncolicum make do with one fifth as much regulation, structural maintenance, protection against mutagens, or [insert preferred universal function] as A. ursinum?

Left, A. altyncolicum (7 pg); centre, A. cepa (17 pg); right, A. ursinum (31.5 pg).

There you have it. The onion test. To be applied to any ambitious claims that a universal function has been found for non-coding DNA.

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1 I do not endorse the use of the term “junk DNA”, which I think has deviated far too much from its original meaning and is now little more than a loaded buzzword; the descriptive term “non-coding DNA” is what I use to refer to the majority of eukaryotic sequences (of various types) that do not encode protein products.

2 Some non-coding DNA certainly has a function at the organismal level, but this does not justify a huge leap from “this bit of non-coding DNA [usually less than 5% of the genome] is functional” to “ergo, all non-coding DNA is functional”.




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