I’m currently reading Francis Collins’ latest book, The Language of Life — DNA And The Revolution In Personalised Medicine. I have to confess to a certain element of surprise when I read this statement in chapter 1 of his book:
The discoveries of the past decade, little known to most of the public, have completely overturned much of what used to be taught in high school biology. If you thought the DNA molecule comprised thousands of of genes but far more “junk DNA”, think again.
Is this really the same Francis Collins who wrote The Language of God, in which he tells us that it “strains credulity” to think that more than a few pieces of “junk DNA” could be functional in the cell? On page 9 he comments on the constitution of the genome, noting that exons and introns of protein-coding genes add up together to about 30% of the genome. But here’s the astonishing thing, coming from Collins. Regarding the long segments of DNA that lie between genes that don’t code for protein, he tells us,
These regions are not just filler, however. They contain many of the signals that are needed to instruct a nearby gene about whether it should be on or off at a given developmental time in a given tissue. Furthermore, we are learning that there may be thousands of genes hanging out in these so-called deserts that don’t code for protein at all. They are copied into RNA, but those RNA molecules are never translated — instead, they serve some other important function.
He then goes on to talk about functionality which has now been ascribed to transposable elements. I’m sure glad that Francis Collins is beginning to change his tune on this issue! One can’t help but think that the efforts of ID proponents, which has in large measure popularised the notion that “junk DNA” isn’t in fact junk, over the last decade have had a part to play in this. The evidence continues to pile in, documenting increasingly more and more instances of functionality with regards these non-coding sequences. Like Darwinism, the more we learn in biology it seems the more untenable the “junk DNA” paradigm becomes. Francis Collins’ “darwin-of-the-gaps” has certainly shrunk several dozen fold since he wrote The Language of God in 2006.