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100% non functional

Panglossian genomics

As most French students of my generation, I had to study Candide, a short philosophical novella written by Voltaire. Back then, I was convinced that Voltaire was an arrogant prick, and I never imagined that his dumb criticism of Leibniz’s theory of pre-established harmony, which he barely understood, would ever echo in my work as a biologist.

But here we are, years have passed, I have made peace with Voltaire, and the ENCODE consortium has issued its major and controversial statement that they find “biochemical functions for 80% of the genome”. As the arguments and the comments flow on the blogs and in the academic press, I cannot help thinking about the words of Dr. Pangloss – incarnating narrow optimism.

Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings.

What I will call the Panglossian reading of the “80% functional” statement above is the idea that 80% of the genome is meant to be the way it is. The architecture of a given locus is somehow designed to produce what happens there (transcription, transcription enhancing, transcription factor binding etc). Notice...

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