The science media exploded today with the claim from the ENCODE project that 80% of the genome is “functional”. The creationists are already beside themselves with joy. And the problem cannot be blamed on the science media, although I wish they were quicker to exercise independent skepticism – the 80% claim is right there in the abstract of the Nature article.
However, skepticism has arisen spontaneously from all over the scientific blogosphere, facebook, and twitter. You see, most of us scientists know that (a) ENCODE is using an extremely liberal and dubious definition of “function”, basically meaning “some detectable chemical activity”. People have pointed out that randomly generated DNA sequences would often be “functional” on this definition. (b) All the evidence for relative nonfunctionality which has been known for decades is still there and hasn’t really changed – lack of conservation, onion test, etc. But I’m beginning to think that certain parts of molecular biology and bioinformatics are populated with people who are very smart, but who got through school with a lot of detailed technical training but without enough broad training in basic comparative biology.
Anyway, I’d write more, but I’m jammed and Ryan Gregory has said everything I would say, except better: http://www.genomicron.evolverzone.com/2012/09/a-slightly-different-response-to-todays-encode-hype/
See also Larry Moran: http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2012/09/encode-leader-says-that-80-of-our.html, especially the rather wry comments.