Saturday, June 24, 2017

Debating alternative splicing (part II)

Mammalian genomes are very large. It looks like 90% of it is junk DNA. These genomes are pervasively transcribed, meaning that almost 90% of the bases are complementary to a transcript produced at some time during development. I think most of those transcripts are due to inappropriate transcription initiation. They are mistakes in transcription. The genome is littered with transcription factor binding sites but only a small percentage are directly involved in regulating gene expression. The rest are due to spurious binding—a well-known property of DNA binding proteins. These conclusions are based, I believe, on a proper understanding of evolution and basic biochemistry.

If you add up all the known genes, they cover about 30% of the genome sequence. Most of this (>90%) is intron sequence and introns are mostly junk. The standard mammalian gene is transcribed to produce a precursor RNA that is subsequently processed by splicing out introns to produce a mature RNA. If it's a messenger RNA (mRNA) then it will be translated to produce a protein (technically, a polypeptide). So far, the vast majority of protein-coding genes produce a single protein but there are some classic cases of alternative splicing where a given gene produces several different protein isoforms, each of which has a specific function.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Debating alternative splicing (part I)

I recently had a chance to talk science with my old friend and colleague Jack Greenblatt. He has recently teamed up with some of my other colleagues at the University of Toronto to publish a paper on alternative splicing in mouse cells. Over the years I have had numerous discussions with these colleagues since they are proponents of massive alternative splicing in mammals. I think most splice variants are due to splicing errors.

There's always a problem with terminology whenever we get involved in this debate. My position is that it's easy to detect splice variants but they should be called "splice variants" until it has been firmly established that the variants have a biological function. This is not a distinction that's acceptable to proponents of massive alternative splicing. They use the term "alternative splicing" to refer to any set of processing variants regardless of whether they are splicing errors or real examples of regulation. This sometimes makes it difficult to have a discussion.

In fact, most of my colleagues seem reluctant to admit that some splice variants could be due to meaningless errors in splicing. Thus, they can't be pinned down when I ask them what percentage of variants are genuine examples of alternative splicing and what percentage are splicing mistakes. I usually ask them to pick out a specific gene, show me all the splice variants that have been detected, and explain which ones are functional and which ones aren't. I have a standing challenge to do this with any one of three sets of genes [A Challenge to Fans of Alternative Splicing].
  1. Human genes for the enzymes of glycolysis
  2. Human genes for the subunits of RNA polymerase with an emphasis on the large conserved subunits
  3. Human genes for ribosomal proteins
I realize that proponents of massive alternative splicing are not under any obligation to respond to my challenge but it sure would help if they did.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Are most transcription factor binding sites functional?

The ongoing debate over junk DNA often revolves around data collected by ENCODE and others. The idea that most of our genome is transcribed (pervasive transcription) seems to indicate that genes occupy most of the genome. The opposing view is that most of these transcripts are accidental products of spurious transcription. We see the same opposing views when it comes to transcription factor binding sites. ENCODE and their supporters have mapped millions of binding sites throughout the genome and they believe this represent abundant and exquisite regulation. The opposing view is that most of these binding sites are spurious and non-functional.

The messy view is supported by many studies on the biophysical properties of transcription factor binding. These studies show that any DNA binding protein has a low affinity for random sequence DNA. They will also bind with much higher affinity to sequences that resemble, but do not precisely match, the specific binding site [How RNA Polymerase Binds to DNA; DNA Binding Proteins]. If you take a species with a large genome, like us, then a typical DNA protein binding site of 6 bp will be present, by chance alone, at 800,000 sites. Not all of those sites will be bound by the transcription factor in vivo because some of the DNA will be tightly wrapped up in dense chromatin domains. Nevertheless, an appreciable percentage of the genome will be available for binding so that typical ENCODE assays detect thousand of binding sites for each transcription factor.

This information appears in all the best textbooks and it used to be a standard part of undergraduate courses in molecular biology and biochemistry. As far as I can tell, the current generation of new biochemistry researchers wasn't taught this information.

Jonathan Wells talks about junk DNA

Watch this video. It dates from this year. Almost everything Wells says is either false or misleading. Why? Is he incapable of learning about genomes, junk DNA, and evolutionary theory?



Some of my former students

Some of my former students were able to come to my retirement reception yesterday: Sean Blaine (left), Anna Gagliardi, Marc Perry.




Hot slash buns

I love hot "cross" buns but now we buy the atheist version.



I retired after 39 years and they gave me an old used book

... but it was a rather special book ...



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

John Mattick still claims that most lncRNAs are functional

Most of the human genome is transcribed at some time or another in some tissue or another. The phenomenon is now known as pervasive transcription. Scientists have known about it for almost half a century.

At first the phenomenon seemed really puzzling since it was known that coding regions accounted for less than 1% of the genome and genetic load arguments suggested that only a small percentage of the genome could be functional. It was also known that more than half the genome consists of repetitive sequences that we now know are bits and pieces of defective transposons. It seemed unlikely back then that transcripts of defective transposons could be functional.

Part of the problem was solved with the discovery of RNA processing, especially splicing. It soon became apparent (by the early 1980s) that a typical protein coding gene was stretched out over 37,000 bp of which only 1300 bp were coding region. The rest was introns and intron sequences appeared to be mostly junk.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On the evolution of duplicated genes: subfunctionalization vs neofunctionalization

New genes can arise by gene duplication. These events are quite common on an evolutionary time scale. In the current human population, for example, there are about 100 examples of polymorphic gene duplications. These are cases where some of us have two copies of a gene while others have only one copy (Zarrie et al., 2015). Humans have gained about 700 new genes by duplication and fixation since we diverged from chimpanzees (Demuth et al., 2006). The average rate of duplication in eukaryotes is about 0.01 events per gene per million years and the half-life of a duplicated gene is about 4 million years (Lynch and Conery, 2003).

The typical fate of these duplicated genes is to "die" by mutation or deletion. There are five possible fates [see Birth and death of genes in a hybrid frog genome]:
  1. One of the genes will "die" by acquiring fatal mutations. It becomes a pseudogene.
  2. One of the genes will die by deletion.
  3. Both genes will survive because having extra gene product (e.g. protein) will be beneficial (gene dosage).
  4. One of the genes acquires a new beneficial mutation that creates a new function and at the same time causes loss of the old function (neofunctionalization). Now both genes are retained by positive selection and the complexity of the genome has increased.
  5. Both genes acquire mutations that diminish function so the genome now needs two copies of the gene in order to survive (subfunctionalization).

Monday, June 19, 2017

Austin Hughes and Neutral Theory

Austin Hughes (1949 - 2015) died a few years ago. He was one of my favorite evolutionary biologists.

Chase Nelson has written a nice summary of Hughes' work at: Austin L. Hughes: The Neutral Theory of Evolution. It's worth reading the first few pages if you aren't clear on the concept. Here's an excerpt ...
When the technology enabling the study of molecular polymorphisms—variations in the sequences of genes and proteins—first arose, a great deal more variability was discovered in natural populations than most evolutionary biologists had expected under natural selection. The neutral theory made the bold claim that these polymorphisms become prevalent through chance alone. It sees polymorphism and long-term evolutionary change as two aspects of the same phenomenon: random changes in the frequencies of alleles. While the neutral theory does not deny that natural selection may be important in adaptive evolutionary change, it does claim that natural selection accounts for a very small fraction of genetic evolution.

A dramatic consequence now follows. Most evolutionary change at the genetic level is not adaptive.

It is difficult to imagine random changes accomplishing so much. But random genetic drift is now widely recognized as one of the most important mechanisms of evolution.
I don't think there's any doubt that this claim is correct as long as you stick to the proper definition of evolution. The vast majority of fixations of alleles are likely due to random genetic drift and not natural selection.

If you don't understand this then you don't understand evolution.

The only quibble I have with the essay is the reference to "Neutral Theory of Evolution" as the antithesis of "Darwinian Evolution" or evolution by natural selection. I think "Neutral Theory" should be restricted to the idea that many alleles are neutral or nearly neutral. These alleles can change in frequency in a population by random genetic drift. The key idea that's anti-Darwinian includes that fact plus two other important facts:
  1. New beneficial alleles can be lost by drift before they ever become fixed. In fact, this is the fate of most new beneficial alleles. It's part of the drift-barrier hypothesis.
  2. Detrimental alleles can occasionally become fixed in a population due to drift.
In both cases, the alleles are not neutral. The key to understanding the overall process is random genetic drift not the idea of neutral alleles—although that's also important.
Originally proposed by Motoo Kimura, Jack King, and Thomas Jukes, the neutral theory of molecular evolution is inherently non-Darwinian. Darwinism asserts that natural selection is the driving force of evolutionary change. It is the claim of the neutral theory, on the other hand, that the majority of evolutionary change is due to chance.
I would just add that it's Neutral Theory PLUS the other effects of random genetic drift that make evolution much more random than most people believe.

Austin Hughes was a skeptic and a creative thinker who often disagreed with the prevailing dogma in the field of evolutionary biology. He was also very religious, a fact I find very puzzling.

His scientific views were often correct, in my opinion.
In 2013, the ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) Project published results suggesting that eighty per cent of the human genome serves some function. This was considered a rebuttal to the widely held view that a large part of the genome was junk, debris collected over the course of evolution. Hughes sided with his friend Dan Graur in rejecting this point of view. Their argument was simple. Only ten per cent of the human genome shows signs of purifying selection, as opposed to neutrality.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

I coulda been an astronomer

A long time ago I used to belong to the Royal Astronomical Society (amateur astronomers) in Ottawa (Canada). That's me on the right with some of my friends. We were testing our sun filters and getting ready to see Venus when the sun went down.

In spite of this promising beginning, I decided to go into biology because it was harder and more interesting.





Tuesday, June 06, 2017

June 6, 1944

Today is anniversary of D-Day—the day British, Canadian, and American troops landed on the beaches of Normandy.1

For baby boomers it means a day of special significance for our parents. In my case, it was my father who took part in the invasions. That's him on the right as he looked in 1944. He was an RAF pilot flying rocket firing typhoons in close support of the ground troops. During the initial days his missions were limited to quick strikes and reconnaissance since Normandy was at the limit of their range from southern England. During the second week of the invasion (June 14th) his squadron landed in Crepon, Normandy and things became very hectic from then on with several close support missions every day.

Stephen Meyer "predicts" there's no junk DNA

Here's an interview with Stephen Meyer on the Evolution 2.0 website: Stephen Meyer Debates Perry Marshall – Intelligent Design vs. Evolution 2.0. I'm posting some remarks by Stephen Meyer in order to preserve them for posterity. Meyer should know by now that the evidence for junk DNA is very solid and the ENCODE declarations are wrong. The fact that he persists in spreading false information about the ID "prediction" is revealing.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Imagine 7


I'll be at Imagine 7 this weekend. Are you going? Contact me if you want to get together.


We are scientists


You can tell we are scientists because we're all wearing lab coats.

Left to right: David Isenman, Larry Moran, Marc Perry, Kim Ellison, Trevor Moraes, Mike Ellison.

The photo was taken in the biochemistry department labs at the University of Toronto (Toronto, Canada).




Three generations of scientists


Bottom row, left to right.

Marc Perry: Bioinformatics researcher and former graduate student in my lab.
Mike Ellison: Professor, University of Alberta (Alberta, Canada) and former graduate student in the lab of my colleague David Pulleyblank.
Trevor Moraes: Professor in my department at the University of Toronto and former graduate student with Mike Ellison.
Kim (Bird) Ellison: Professor at the University of Alberta, former undergraduate student in my lab (where she met Mike Ellison), Ph.D. at MIT.



Saturday, May 20, 2017

Denis Noble writes about junk DNA

I have read Dance to the Tune of Life. It's a very confusing book for several reasons. Denis Noble has a very different perspective on evolution and what evolutionary theory needs to accomplish. He thinks that life is characterized by something he calls "Biological Relativity." I don't disagree. He also thinks that evolutionary theory needs to incorporate everything that has ever happened in the history of life. That's where we part company.

I'm working slowly on a book about genomes and junk DNA so I was anxious to see how Noble deals with that subject. I tend to judge the quality of books and articles by the way they interpret the controversy over junk DNA. Here's the first mention of junk DNA from page 89. He begins by saying that it's difficult to explain development and the diversity of tissues in multicellular organisms. He continues with,

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Jonathan Wells illustrates zombie science by revisiting junk DNA

Jonathan Wells has written a new book (2017) called Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution. He revisits his famous Icons of Evolution from 2000 and tries to show that nothing has changed in 17 years.

I wrote a book in 2000 about ten images images, ten "icons of evolution," that did not fit the evidence and were empirically dead. They should have been buried, but they are still with us, haunting our science classrooms and stalking our children. They are part of what I call zombie science.
I won't bore you with the details. The icons fall into two categories: (1) those that were meaningless and/or trivial in 2000 and remain so today, and (2) those that Wells misunderstood in 2000 and are still misunderstood by creationists today.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"The Perils of Public Outreach"

Julia Shaw is a forensic psychologist. She is currently a senior lecturer in criminology at the London South Bank University (London, UK). Shaw is concerned that we are creating a culture where public outreach is being unfairly attacked. Read her Scientific American post at: The Perils of Public Outreach.

Shaw's point is rather interesting. She believes that scientists who participate in public outreach are being unfairly criticized. Let's look closely at her argument.
What scientists write in academic publications is generally intended for a scientific community, full of nuance and precise language. Instead, what scientists say and write in public forums is intended for lay audiences, almost invariably losing nuance but gaining impact and social relevance. This makes statements made in public forums particularly ripe for attack.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Debating philosophers: Pierrick Bourrat responds to my criticism of his paper

I recently criticized a paper by Lu and Bourrat on the extended evolutionary synthesis [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. Pierrick Bourrat responds in this guest post.


by Pierrick Bourrat
Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy
Macquarie University
Sydney, Australia

Both Qiaoying Lu and I are grateful to Professor Moran for the copious attention he has bestowed on our paper. We are early career researchers and didn’t expect our paper to receive so much attention from a senior academic in a public forum. Moran claims that our work is out of touch with science (and more generally works in philosophy of biology), that the paper is weakly argued and that some of what we write is false. But in the end, he puts forward a similar position to ours.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Debating philosophers: Epigenetics

Qiaoying Lu and Pierrick Bourrat are philosophers in Australia.1 Their research interests include evolutionary theory and they have taken an interest in the current debate over extending evolutionary theory. That debate has been promoted by a small group of scientists who, by and large, are not experts in evolution. They claim that current evolutionary theory—which they define incorrectly as the 1960s version of the Modern Synthesis—needs to be overthrown or extended by including things like epigenetics, niche construction, developmental biology, and plasticity [New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: The Program].

Lu and Bourrat have focused on epigenetics in their recent paper [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. They hope to reach an accommodation by re-defining the evolutionary gene as: "any physical structure that causes a heritable variation." Then they go on to say that, "we define the phenotype of an evolutionary gene as everything that the gene makes a difference to when compared to another gene."

By doing this, they claim that epigenetic changes (e.g. transient methylation) fall with the new definition. Therefore, epigenetics doesn't really represent a challenge to evolutionary theory. They explain it like this ....

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Debating philosophers: The molecular gene

This is my fifth post on the Lu and Bourrat paper [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. The authors are attempting to justify the inclusion of epigenetics into current evolutionary theory by re-defining the concept of "gene," specifically the evolutionary gene concept. So far, I've discussed their understanding of current evolutionary theory and why I think it is flawed [Debating philosophers: The Modern Synthesis]. I described their view of "genes" and pointed out the confusion between "genes" and "alleles" and why I think "alleles" is the better term [Debating philosophers: The difference between genes and alleles]. In my last post I discussed their definition of the evolutionary gene and why it is too adaptationist to serve a useful function [Debating philosophers: The evolutionary gene].

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Debating philosophers: The evolutionary gene

This is the forth post on the Lu and Bourrat paper [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. The philosophers are attempting to redefine the word "gene" in order to make epigenetics compatible with current evolutionary theory.

I define a gene in the following way: "A gene is a DNA sequence that is transcribed to produce a functional product" [What Is a Gene?]. This is a biochemical/molecular definition and it's not the same as the definition used in traditional evolution.

Lu and Bourrat discuss the history of the evolutionary gene and conclude,

Debating philosophers: The difference between genes and alleles

This is my third post on the Lu and Bourrat (2017) paper [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. Part of their argument is to establish that modern evolutionary theory is a gene-centric theory. They need to make this connection because they are about to re-define the word "gene" in order to accommodate epigenetics.

In my last post I referred to their defense of the Modern Synthesis and quoted them as saying that the major tenets of the Modern Synthesis (MS) are still the basis of modern evolutionary theory. They go on to say,

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Debating philosophers: The Modern Synthesis

I'm discussing a paper by Lu and Bourrat (2017) [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. They begin by describing current evolutionary theory, known (to them) as the Modern Synthesis. The paper is about challenges to current evolutionary theory from those who advocate an extended evolutionary synthesis or from those who would replace, rather than extend, current evolutionary theory. It is reasonable to begin with a description of the theory that's being challenged.

Here's what Lu & Bourrat say,

Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper

John Wilkins posted a link on Facebook to a recent paper by his colleagues in Australia. The authors are Qiaoying Lu of the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University in Sidney Australia and Pierrick Bourat of the Department of Philosophy at The University of Sydney in Sidney Australia.

Lu, Q., and Bourrat, P. (2017) The evolutionary gene and the extended evolutionary synthesis. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, (advanced article) April 20, 2017. [doi: 10.1093/bjps/axw035] [PhilSci Archive]

Abstract: Advocates of an ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ have claimed that standard evolutionary theory fails to accommodate epigenetic inheritance. The opponents of the extended synthesis argue that the evidence for epigenetic inheritance causing adaptive evolution in nature is insufficient. We suggest that the ambiguity surrounding the conception of the gene represents a background semantic issue in the debate. Starting from Haig’s gene-selectionist framework and Griffiths and Neumann-Held’s notion of the evolutionary gene, we define senses of ‘gene’, ‘environment’, and ‘phenotype’ in a way that makes them consistent with gene-centric evolutionary theory. We argue that the evolutionary gene, when being materialized, need not be restricted to nucleic acids but can encompass other heritable units such as epialleles. If the evolutionary gene is understood more broadly, and the notions of environment and phenotype are defined accordingly, current evolutionary theory does not require a major conceptual change in order to incorporate the mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance.

1 Introduction
2 The Gene-centric Evolutionary Theory and the ‘Evolutionary Gene’
      2.1 The evolutionary gene
      2.2 Genes, phenotypes, and environments
3 Epigenetic Inheritance and the Gene-Centred Framework
      3.1 Treating the gene as the sole heritable material?
      3.2 Epigenetics and phenotypic plasticity
4 Conclusion

The selfish gene vs the lucky allele

The Selfish Gene was published forty-one years ago (1976) and last year there was a bit of a celebration. I think we can all appreciate the impact that the book had at the time but I'm not sure it's as profound and lasting as most people believe ["The Selfish Gene" turns 40] [The "selfish gene" is not a good metaphor to describe evolution] [Die, selfish gene, die!].

The main criticisms fall into two categories: (1) the primary unit of selection is the individual organism, not the gene, and (2) the book placed too much emphasis on adaptation (Darwinism). I think modern evolutionary theory is based on 21st century population genetics and that view puts a great deal of emphasis on the power of random genetic drift. The evolution of a population involves the survival of individuals within the population and that, in turn, depends on the variation that exists in the population. Thus, evolution is characterized by changes in the frequencies of alleles in a population.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Professor, please can I have more marks?

I submitted my grades on Thursday morning and they were approved by the Department of Biochemistry in short order. Once the final grades have been approved and submitted to the Faculty they can't be changed unless the change is approved by the Departmental Chair. Students may appeal their grade by paying a fee to re-read their final exam but, even then, I do not have the authority on my own to change a grade. I have to justify any change in writing. This is a good thing.

A few hours after the grades were posted I received an email message from a student [It's that time of year, again]. Here's part of what the student said,
I just saw my final mark ... which was an 76, and was very surprised. I thought I'd done well on the final exam, and had studied hard. My performance on the Midterm was good, and I had expected this to be just as well. As such, I wanted to humbly inquire whether it'd be possible to move me a 77 (a 1% increase) or even an 80. This small difference could make a very big impact on my GPA as I apply for positions to pursue a master or other professional degrees. With the mark as it is now, I fall below the GPA requirement for a program I wish to enroll in next year and will have to do another few courses or a full year to make up for it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bill Martin is coming to town!!!

Contact me by email if you'd like to meet him on Sunday, April 30th.




The last molecular evolution exam: Question #6

How can alleles be fixed in a population by positive natural selection (i.e. adaptation) if the environment remains constant for thousands of years?

Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6


The last molecular evolution exam: Question #5

Many people believe that recombination evolved because it increases genetic variation in a population and this provided a selective advantage over species that didn’t have recombination. Do you agree with this explanation for the evolution of recombination? Why, or why not? What are the other possibilities?

Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6


The last molecular evolution exam: Question #4

More than 90% of our genome is transcribed when you add up all the transcripts from various cell types and various times of development (= pervasive transcription). Many biologists take this as evidence that most of the DNA in our genome is functional. What are the counter-arguments? Who do you believe and why?

Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6


The last molecular evolution exam: Question #3

The Three Domain Hypothesis has eukaryotes and archaea branching off from eubacteria. It shows eukaryotes more closely related to archaea than to eubacteria. However, many scientific studies indicate that a majority of our genes are more similar to eubacterial genes than to archaeal genes. How do you explain this apparent conflict?

Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6


The last molecular evolution exam: Question #2

The paper by Andrews et al. (2011) lists a number of common misconceptions held by their students. One of them is the idea that, “Evolution is a process that will never stop, even in the human species.” Why do they think this is a misconception? Do you agree?

Andrews, T.M., Kalinowski, S.T., and Leonard, M.J. (2011). “Are humans evolving?” A classroom discussion to change student misconceptions regarding natural selection. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4:456-466. [doi: 10.1007/s12052-011-0343-4]
Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6


The last molecular evolution exam: Question #1

Eugene Koonin described his view of the proper null hypothesis for evolutionary questions. One of the examples he used concerns the evolution of recent gene duplications (Koonin, 2016 p.5). Describe how one possible fate of these genes relates to constructive neutral evolution. What are the other possible fates of these genes? Which one is most likely?

Koonin, E.V. (2016) Splendor and misery of adaptation, or the importance of neutral null for understanding evolution. BMC biology, 14:114 [doi: 10.1186/s12915-016-0338-2]

... in eukaryotes, duplicates of individual genes cannot be effectively eliminated by selection and thus often persist and diverge. The typical result is subfunctionalization, whereby the gene duplicates undergo differential mutational deterioration, losing subsets of ancestral functions. As a result, the evolving organisms become locked into maintaining the pair of paralogs. Subfunctionalization underlies a more general phenomenon, denoted constructive neutral evolution (CNE).

Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6


Sunday, April 09, 2017

Vimy Ridge

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The battle invovled four divisions of the Canadian Corps and it has become a symbol for Canada of the sacrifices made during World War I. The symbol is remarkable for the beautiful Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial designed by Walter Seymour Allward. He intended it to be a "sermon against the futility of war."

It is remarkably successful as such a symbol since, among other things, it contains the names of more than 11,000 Canadians who died in World War I and whose bodies were never recovered. We visited the memorial in 2011 with my granddaughter Zoë [Canadian National Vimy Memorial] and found the name of Lance Corporal Robert Alexander Hood, a cousin of Leslie's grandfather and Zoë's great-great-grandfather.



Saturday, April 08, 2017

Somatic cell mutation rate in humans

A few years ago, Tomasetti and Vogelstein (2015) published a paper where they noted a correlation between rates of cancer and the number of cell divisions. They concluded that a lot of cancers could be attributed to bad luck. This conclusion didn't sit well with most people for two reasons. (1) There are many well-known environmental effects that increase cancer rates (e.g. smoking, radiation), and (2) there's a widespread belief that you can significantly reduce your chances of getting cancer by "healthy living" (whatever that is). The first objection is based on solid scientific evidence but the second one is not as scientific.

Some of the objections to the original Tomasetti and Vogelstein paper were based on the mathematical models they used to reach their conclusions. The authors have now followed up on their original study with more data. The paper appears in the March 24, 2017 issue of Science (Tomasetti and Vogelstein, 2017). If you're interested in the debate over "bad luck" you should read the accompanying review by Nowak and Waclaw (2017). They conclude that the math is sound and many cancer-causing mutations are, in fact, due to chance mutations in somatic cells. They point out something that should be obvious but bears repeating.

Monday, March 27, 2017

How to define evolution?

Do you think this video is helpful? [see "What Is Evolution?"] Is it important to know that evolution requires genetic changes and that it's populations that evolve? Is it important to have a definition of evolution that covers antibiotic resistance in bacteria and blood types in humans?




Monday, March 20, 2017

Correcting the correction of a video about evolution

Charlie McDonnell is the author of a book called Fun Science: A Guide To Life, The Universe And Why Science Is So Awesome. He made a video on misconceptions about the theory of evolution (see below). Sally Le Page (below left) is an evolutionary biologist working on her Ph.D. at Oxford (UK). She noticed a few problems with the McDonnell video so she made one of her own to correct the misconception in the first video. Now it's my turn to correct the misconception in the video that corrects the first video!

Sally Le Page highlights six misconceptions in the McDonnell video. She points out that none of them are very important—they are "little niggles"—but she still thinks a comment is necessary. (I agree.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

What's in Your Genome? Chapter 4: Pervasive Transcription

I'm working (slowly) on a book called What's in Your Genome?: 90% of your genome is junk! The first chapter is an introduction to genomes and DNA [What's in Your Genome? Chapter 1: Introducing Genomes ]. Chapter 2 is an overview of the human genome. It's a summary of known functional sequences and known junk DNA [What's in Your Genome? Chapter 2: The Big Picture]. Chapter 3 defines "genes" and describes protein-coding genes and alternative splicing [What's in Your Genome? Chapter 3: What Is a Gene?].

Chapter 4 is all about pervasive transcription and genes for functional noncoding RNAs.
Chapter 4: Pervasive Transcription
  • How much of the genome is transcribed?
  • How do we know about pervasive transcription?
  • Different kinds of noncoding RNAs
  •         Box 4-1: Long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs)
  • Understanding transcription
  •         Box 4-2: Revisiting the Central Dogma
  • What the scientific papers don’t tell you
  •         Box 4-3: John Mattick proves his hypothesis?
  • On the origin of new genes
  • The biggest blow to junk?
  •         Box 4-4: How do you tell if it’s functional?
  • Biochemistry is messy
  • Evolution as a tinkerer
  •         Box 4-5: Dealing with junk RNA
  • Change your worldview


What's in Your Genome? Chapter 3: What Is a Gene?

I'm working (slowly) on a book called What's in Your Genome?: 90% of your genome is junk! The first chapter is an introduction to genomes and DNA [What's in Your Genome? Chapter 1: Introducing Genomes ]. Chapter 2 is an overview of the human genome. It's a summary of known functional sequences and known junk DNA [What's in Your Genome? Chapter 2: The Big Picture]. Here's the TOC entry for Chapter 3: What Is a Gene?. The goal is to define "gene" and determine how many protein-coding genes are in the human genome. (Noncoding genes are described in the next chapter.)

Chapter 3: What Is a Gene?
  • Defining a gene
  •         Box 3-1: Philosophers and genes
  • Counting Genes
  • Misleading statements about the number of genes
  • Introns and the evolution of split genes
  • Introns are mostly junk
  • Alternative splicing
  •         Box 3-2: Competing databases
  • Alternative splicing and disease
  •         Box 3-3: The false logic of the argument from         complexity
  • Gene families and the birth & death of genes
  •         Box 3-4: Real orphans in the human genome
  • Different kinds of pseudogenes
  •         Box 3-5: Conserved pseudogenes and Ken Miller’s         argument against intelligent design
  • Are they really pseudogenes?
  • How accurate is the genome sequence?
  • The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology
  • ENCODE proposes a “new” definition of “gene”
  • What is noncoding DNA?
  • Dark matter

Monday, March 06, 2017

What's in Your Genome? Chapter 2: The Big Picture

I'm working (slowly) on a book called What's in Your Genome?: 90% of your genome is junk! I thought I'd post the TOC for each chapter as I finish the first drafts. Here's chapter 2.

Chapter 2: The Big Picture
  • How much of the genome has been sequenced?
  • Whose genome was sequenced?
  • How many genes?
  • Pseudogenes
  • Regulatory sequences
  • Origins of replication
  • Centromeres
  • Telomeres
  • Scaffold Attachment regions (SARs)
  • Transposons
  • Viruses
  • Mitochondrial DNA (NumtS)
  • How much of our genome is functional?


What's in Your Genome? Chapter 1: Introducing Genomes

I'm working (slowly) on a book called What's in Your Genome?: 90% of your genome is junk! I thought I'd post the TOC for each chapter as I finish the first drafts. Here's chapter 1.

Chapter 1: Introducing Genomes
  • The genome war
  • What is DNA?
  • Chromatin
  • How big is your genome?
  • Active genes?
  • What do you need to know?


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Another physicist teaches us about evolution

Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist at the City College of New York. Like many physicists, he thinks he's smart enough to know everything about everything so he doesn't hesitate to lecture people about evolution.

In this case. He's telling us that humans have reached perfection in all adaptive traits so there can't be any more selection for things like bigger brains. He tells us that human evolution has stopped because no animals are chasing us in the forest any more. He also let's us know that there are no more isolated populations because of jet planes. Watch the video to see how little he understands.



Is there something peculiar about physicists? Does anyone know of any biologists who make YouTube videos about quantum mechanics or black holes? If not, is that because biologists are too stupid ... or too smart?


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sloppiness in translation initiation

There are two competing worldviews in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology. The distinction was captured a few years ago by Laurence Hurst commenting on pervasive transcription when he said, "So there are two models; one, the world is messy and we're forever making transcripts we don't want. Or two, the genome is like the most exquisitely designed Swiss watch and we don't understand its working. We don't know the answer—which is what makes genomics so interesting." (Hopkins, 2009).

I refer to these two world views as the Swiss watch analogy and the Rube Goldberg analogy.

The distinction is important because, depending on your worldview, you will interpret things very differently. We see it in the debate over junk DNA where those in the Swiss watch category have trouble accepting that we could have a genome full of junk. Those in the Rube Goldberg category (I am one) tend to dismiss a lot of data as just noise or sloppiness.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Did Rosalind Franklin produce the first X-ray diffraction images of DNA?

There's an interesting video of ten famous women scientists at Interesting S_Word: [Top 10 Female Scientists of History]. The image of Rosalind Franklin caught my eye (see right).


Perhaps I'm nitpicking but fake news is all the rage these days so I think we'd better be extra careful to present real facts rather than alternative facts. In that spirit, I'll mention two things.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Dan Graur explains junk DNA

If you want to be a serious participant in the debate over junk DNA then you should watch this video. Dan Graur presents the standard arguments for junk DNA—most of which have been around for decades. He also destroys the main arguments against junk DNA. You are entitled to choose sides in this debate but you are not entitled to pose as an authority unless you know the best arguments from BOTH sides. It is not sufficient to just quote evidence for function as support for your bias. You must also refute the evidence for junk. You have to show why it is wrong or misleading.





Hat Tip: PZ Myers

Sunday, February 12, 2017

ENCODE workshop discusses function in 2015

A reader directed me to a 2015 ENCODE workshop with online videos of all the presentations [From Genome Function to Biomedical Insight: ENCODE and Beyond]. The workshop was sponsored by the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md (USA). The purpose of the workshop was ...

  1. Discuss the scientific questions and opportunities for better understanding genome function and applying that knowledge to basic biological questions and disease studies through large-scale genomics studies.
  2. Consider options for future NHGRI projects that would address these questions and opportunities.
The main controversy concerning the human genome is how much of it is junk DNA with no function. Since the purpose of ENCODE is to understand genome function, I expected a lively discussion about how to distinguish between functional elements and spurious nonfunctional elements.

Darwin Day 2017

Today is Darwin Day but I'm too busy with other things to write a new post in his honor. So here's a post from 2007 (slightly updated) to help you enjoy the day.




Today is the birthday of the greatest scientist who ever lived. When you visit Darwin's home (Down House) you get a sense of what he must have been like. One of the things that's obvious is the number of bedrooms for the children. The house must have been alive with the activities of young children. It's no wonder that Darwin needed some peace and quiet from time to time.

Gwen Raverat was Darwin's granddaughter (daughter of George Darwin). She described Down House as she knew it in the years shortly after Darwin died.
Of all places at Down, the Sandwalk seemed most to belong to my grandfather. It was a path running round a little wood which he had planted himself; and it always seemed to be a very long way from the house. You went right to the furthest end of the kitchen garden, and then through a wooden door in the high hedge, which quite cut you off from human society. Here a fenced path ran along between two great lonely meadows, till you came to the wood. The path ran straight down the outside of the wood--the Light Side--till it came to a summer-house at the far end; it was very lonely there; to this day you cannot see a single building anywhere, only woods and valleys.
I became interested in Darwin's children about fifteen years ago when I first began to appreciate the influence they had on his life. We all know the story of Annie's death when she was ten years old and how this led to Darwin's rejection of religion. There were other tragedies but Charles and Emma turned out to be very good parents.

Here's a short biography of each of Darwin's children from AboutDarwin.com
William Erasmus Darwin
The first of Darwin's children was born on December 27, 1839. He was a graduate of Christ’s College at Cambridge University, and was a banker in Southampton. He married Sara Ashburner from New York, but they had no children. William died in 1914.

Anne Elizabeth Darwin
Born on March 2 1841, and died at the age of ten of tuberculosis on April 22, 1851. It was the death of Annie that radically altered Darwin’s belief in Christianity.

Mary Eleanor Darwin
Born on September 23, 1842 but died a few weeks later on October 16th.

Henrietta Emma Darwin ("Etty")
Born on September 25, 1843 and married Richard Buckley Litchfield in August of 1871. She lived 86 years and edited Emma's (her mother) personal letters and had them published in 1904. She had no children.

George Howard Darwin
Born on July 9, 1845. He was an astronomer and mathematician, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society ... in 1879. In 1883 he became the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University, and was a Barrister-at-Law. He studied the evolution and origins of the solar system. George married Martha (Maud) du Puy from Philadelphia. They had two sons, and two daughters. He died in 1912.

Elizabeth Darwin
Born on July 8, 1847 and died in 1926. She never married and had no children.

Francis Darwin
Born on August 16, 1848. He became a botanist specializing in plant physiology. He helped his father with his experiments on plants and was of great influence in Darwin's writing of "The Power of Movement in Plants" (1880). He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1879, and taught at Cambridge University from 1884, as a Professor of Botany, until 1904. He edited many of Darwin's correspondence and published "Life and Letters of Charles Darwin" in 1887, and "More Letters of Charles Darwin" in 1903. He also edited and published Darwin’s Autobiography. He married Amy Ruck but she died when their first child, Bernard, was born in September of 1876. He then married Ellen Crofts in September of 1883, and they had one daughter, Frances in 1886. Francis was knighted in 1913, and died in 1925.

Leonard Darwin
Born on January 15, 1850. He became a soldier in the Royal Engineers in 1871, and was a Major from 1890 onwards. He taught at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham from 1877 to 1882, and served in the Ministry of War, Intelligence Division, from 1885-90. He later became a liberal-unionist MP for the town of Lichfield in Staffordshire 1892-95, and was president of the Royal Geological Society 1908-11. Leonard married Elizabeth Fraser in July of 1882. He married a second time, but had no children and died in 1943.

Horace Darwin
Born on May 13, 1851. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and became an engineer and a builder of scientific instruments. In 1885 he founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. He was the Mayor of Cambridge from 1896-97, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903. Horace married Emma Farrer in January of 1880 and they had three children. He died in 1928.

Charles Waring Darwin
Born on December 6, 1856 but died on June 28 1858.



This is something I wrote about my visit to Westminster Abby 17 years ago.

Eventually we wind around the Monastery and finally enter the Nave. Ignoring the monument to Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and hardly bothering to look up and admire the high ceiling, I head for the front of the church where I can see the statue of Isaac Newton (1643-1727). This is the same statue that plays such an important role in the Da Vinci Code but today I’m not interested in Newton or his orb. I takes me only a few seconds to find the marked stone on the floor. I’m standing on the grave of Charles Robert Darwin.

I can picture the scene on Wednesday, April 26, 1882—a grand funeral attended by all of London’s high society and the leading intellectuals of the most powerful nation in the world. Darwin would not have been pleased. He wanted to be buried quietly in the Downe cemetery with his brother Erasmus and two of his children. Darwin's family was persuaded by his friends Galton, Hooker, Huxley and the President of the Royal Society, William Spottiswoode, that, for the sake of England, Darwin should be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. As Janet Browne writes in her biography of Charles Darwin, "Dying was the most political thing Darwin could have done."

Looking around I can see the tomb of Joseph Hooker and a memorial to Alfred Wallace, two of the scientists who were Darwin’s pallbearers. (Another pallbearer, Thomas Henry Huxley, is buried elsewhere.) Nearby are the final resting places of a host of famous scientists; Kelvin, Joule, Clerk-Maxwell, Faraday, Herschell, and Sir Charles Lyell. Lyell was Darwin’s hero and mentor. We are told that Darwin’s wife Emma wished he were buried closer to Lyell.

I am not overly sentimental but this visit has a powerful effect. I think Charles Darwin is the greatest scientist who ever lived—yes, even greater than Sir Isaac Newton whose huge statue overshadows Darwin’s humble marker in the floor. Natural selection is one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time. Darwin discovered it and he deserves most of the credit. But Charles Darwin died on April 19 in 1882 and that was a long time ago.



Saturday, February 11, 2017

What did ENCODE researchers say on Reddit?

ENCODE researchers answered a bunch of question on Reddit a few days ago. I asked them to give their opinion on how much junk DNA is in our genome but they declined to answer that question. However, I think we can get some idea about the current thinking in the leading labs by looking at the questions they did choose to answer. I don't think the picture is very encouraging. It's been almost five years since the ENCODE publicity disaster of September 2012. You'd think the researchers might have learned a thing or two about junk DNA since that fiasco.

The question and answer session on Reddit was prompted by award of a new grant to ENCODE. They just received 31.5 million dollars to continue their search for functional regions in the human genome. You might have guessed that Dan Graur would have a few words to say about giving ENCODE even more money [Proof that 100% of the Human Genome is Functional & that It Was Created by a Very Intelligent Designer @ENCODE_NIH].