Making something of junk earns geneticist top award.

Making something of junk earns geneticist top award

When Sydney geneticist John Mattick suggested junk DNA was anything but rubbish he was challenging an assumption that had underpinned genetics for 50 years.

”The ideas I put forward 10 years ago were quite radical but I thought I was right,” Professor Mattick said.

He was. And tomorrow he will become the first Australian honoured with the Chen Award for distinguished academic achievement in human genetic and genomic research, awarded by the Human Genome Organisation.

For decades after James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA was a double helix, scientists believed most genes were the written instructions for proteins, the building blocks of all body processes. The assumption was true for bacteria but not complex organisms like humans, said Professor Mattick, the new executive director of the Garvan Institute.

In humans, more than 95 per cent of the genome contains billions of letters that do not make proteins, called non-coding DNA. ”When people bumped into all this DNA that didn’t make proteins they thought it must be junk,” he said. But Professor Mattick felt it was unlikely that useless material would survive hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

He found that the non-protein-coding sections of DNA had a function, to produce RNA.

“The obvious and very exciting possibility was that there is another layer of information being expressed by the genome – that the non-coding RNAs form a massive and previously unrecognised regulatory network that controls human development.”

Many scientists now believe this RNA is the basis of the brain’s plasticity and learning, and may hold the secret to understanding many complex diseases.


6 comments to Making something of junk earns geneticist top award.

  • Well, the graph alone is pure bunk so it makes the whole article suspect. Just what percentage of “junk” encodes RNA? Would like ther hear your thoughts on this Dr. Gregory.

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  • I thought it was pretty classy that you left this without critique other than reproducing the infamous Dog Ass Plot.

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  • ”When people bumped into all this DNA that didn’t make proteins they thought it must be junk,” he said. But Professor Mattick felt it was unlikely that useless material would survive hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

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    “But being junk doesn’t mean it is entirely useless. Common sense suggests that anything that is completely useless would be discarded.”
    – Comings (1972), the first in depth discussion of “junk DNA”

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    “This is what I emphasized earlier, that this DNA must have a functional value since nothing is known so widespread and universal in nature that has proven useless.”

    – Yunis, in the discussion following Ohno’s 1972 presentation in which the term “junk DNA” was introduced

     

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  • Whenever I’m depressed about the state of science literacy among the public, all I have to do is look at the plot and I am no longer concerned about public science literacy – I’m even more depressed about the state of science literacy among scientists.

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  • Paul Ebert

    You probably don’t know John personally. He is not only a tremendous scientist, but he is also a superb communicator. He enjoys interpreting science for audiences at all levels. Sometimes use of the term junk DNA is an appropriate communication device. He certainly is aware that people spoke of possible functions of “junk DNA”. Text books even mentioned the possibility of functions even though they also used the term “junk DNA”. John spent many years running two research programs. One was mainstream science and the other was an extended effort to discover the function of non-coding RNA. The work on non-coding RNA was carried out under the stigma of working on “junk DNA”.
    There was a nearly 30 year span between the “common sense” quotes above and the breakthroughs associated with understanding the roles of regulatory RNAs. I have heard John use the term “intellectual laziness” to refer to the time during which the term “junk DNA” was used. John is certainly not scientifically illiterate as suggested above.
    By the way, if you really wanted to rubbish John for his comment, you would have referred to the following:
    Science 165: 349-357, 1969.
    That paper was much more that a throw-away “common sense” comment. Instead it was a complete description of a possible role for regulatory RNAs. The thinking presented in that paper was displaced by the model of gene regulation provided by bacteria.

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