In defence of Mattick.

This comment was posted in defence of John Mattick, but it was on an older post so I thought it would be better to put it up front in a new post. I (and others) have talked about the problems with Mattick’s distortion of the history of junk DNA research, his convenient interpretation of data, and his pronouncements of being a revolutionary, but here is a different perspective. Thoughts?

Paul Ebert wrote:

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.

5 comments to In defence of Mattick.

  • Incidentally, the 1969 Britten paper came out 3 years before the term junk DNA was coined, and more than 10 years before the selfish DNA hypothesis. So, I really don’t understand the point.


  • NickMatzke

    Until Mattick retracts The Worst Figure Ever, and deals with the onion test and the fact that ferns and salamanders can have genomes dozens of times bigger than the human genome, I’m afraid he’s gonna be on the kooky list.  It’s not because he takes an unpopular position or because he’s exploring an alternative idea, it’s because he’s just blatantly assumed humans are the most special thing out there and that the noncoding DNA amount is the reason why, with no appreciation of the true distribution of genome sizes.  Of course you know all this.  PS Was talking to Marvalee Wake, she has some unpublished genome size stuff on amphibians she thinks you should have.


    • Cool — happy to add Marvalee’s data to the database, or to talk about how they might be turned into a paper.

      I don’t think Mattick is a kook, but he has held a particular position rather dogmatically and presents very biased interpretations of what is known, what others have said, and what he has contributed.


  • In my critique of Mattick [<a href=””>John Mattick Wins Chen Award</a>] I selected statements he made in published papers and on his own website and I quoted notable scientists who disagree with him.
    My conclusion is that he is not a “tremendous scientist.”
    Is he a “superb communicator”? No, because the top three criteria of superb communication are accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy. If what you’re saying isn’t correct then it doesn’t matter how well you say it. Mattick is still confused about the difference between “noncoding DNA” and “junk DNA” even after all these years. This does not inspire confidence in his reasoning abilities or his communication skills.
    Mattick seriously believes that the vast majority of our genome produces regulatory RNAs that control and regulate development. Think about what that means. It means that for every single classical RNA and protein-encoding gene he believes there are 100 other genes that regulate their expression. Not only that, but almost all of the sequences of these other “genes” differ in different species by amounts that just happen to correspond closely to the expected differences for neutral substitutions fixed by random genetic drift. In other words they are not conserved.
    That’s the kind of thinking that gets you prestigious awards?


  • Noncodo

    You guys are missing Mattick’s point. It’s not about genome size, or amount of non-coding DNA, or figures published by popular science editors. It’s about transcriptional complexity and post-transcriptional regulation of gene expression. Read the papers, not the blogs.    


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