This instantly raised a few eyebrows. It is generally believed that maybe 50% of the human genome consists of viral fragments. A very few of these have been shown to be functional, especially the gene for the protein syncytin, active in the placenta. But most of the 50% comprises inactivated viral remains of infections. Question: how many world-class genome biologists does it take to realise that 50 + 80 cannot a genome make?
Now, a paper by Dan Graur has alerted the media to the flaws in the ENCODE papers and a media storm has erupted.
It seems that the consortium knew that the figure of 80% was misleading but as blog on the Nature (publisher of 6 of the papers) website put it: “The 80% number may not have been ideal, but it did provide a headline figure that was impressive to the mainstream media”. Since when has reporting scientific results that are known to be “not ideal” been acceptable? Has science really sunk this low in order to court publicity?
This 80% nonsense does great damage to the real understanding of regulatory genes in what was formerly known as junk DNA. Even if this comprises 2% of the genome, that is twice the protein-coding component. Worse than that: if scientists have been caught out playing with figures as gross as this 80% it’s a godsend to the lobby-fuelled sceptics who don’t believe in evolution or global warming.