Decoding the blueprint. Sigh.

The results of the proof-of-principle phase of ENCODE, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project, appear in the June 14 issue of Nature. It’s a very interesting project, and it has revealed a few more surprises (or at least, added evidence in favour of previously surprising observations). I will probably post more about it soon, but for the time being let me just offer a brief apology to the science writers out there whom I have given a hard time about invoking sloppy language to describe non-coding DNA, sequencing, and genomes (recent example, but one I will leave alone, ‘Junk’ DNA makes compulsive reading online at New Scientist).

The reason I am sorry is that I simply cannot hold you to a higher standard than is maintained by one of the most prestigious journals on planet Earth. You see, Nature has decided to depict the ENCODE project on the cover as “Decoding the Blueprint”. Needless to say (again), genomes are not blueprints (as the ENCODE project shows!) and no one is decoding anything at this point.

I have said all this before, and even I am getting tired of my complaints about it. Thus, I will focus only on the interesting science in a later post.

Sigh.



2 comments to Decoding the blueprint. Sigh.

  • David Bradley

    I am not going to jump to the defence of fellow science writers regarding the use of sloppy language. But, some poetic licence is obligatory if one is to get across at least half a message to lay readers that may not know the difference between a virus and a bacterium let alone a gene and a phenotype.

    And, as you point out even the most prestigious of scientific journals can succumb to the temptation to gloss over complex scientific issues and use shorthand and less than accurate phrases like blueprint and junk.

    More to the point though, wasn’t the term “junk DNA” coined by a scientist in the first place, and didn’t all the publicity-seeking hype surrounding the pre-grants Human Genome Project tout the concept of laying out the blueprints of humanity?

    David Bradley

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  • TheBrummell

    But, some poetic licence is obligatory if one is to get across at least half a message to lay readers that may not know the difference between a virus and a bacterium let alone a gene and a phenotype.

    Leaving aside the minefield of condescension and authoritarianism inherent in such an approach, Nature is not intended for “lay readers” who are so ignorant of basic biology. It’s a scientific journal, written by and for practicing scientists, who should all be quite comfortable with unambiguous definitions for words like “decode” and “blueprint”.

    I don’t think the problem is so much the use of the term “junk DNA”, as you correctly point out the term was coined by a scientist a few decades ago (see previous post on this blog). The much greater problem is with terms like “decode” and “blueprint”. There’s just so much stupid packed into those three words on the cover of Nature that for once I’m glad that this journal publishes weekly, so this stupidity can stop being the current issue shortly.

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