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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

The extent of functionality in the human genome

John S Mattick123* and Marcel E Dinger12

Author Affiliations

1 Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Darlinghurst NSW 2010, Australia

2 St Vincent’s Clinical School, University of New South Wales, Kensington NSW 2052, Australia

3 School of Biotechnology & Biomolecular Sciences, University of New South Wales, Kensington NSW 2052, Australia

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The HUGO Journal 2013, 7:2  doi:10.1186/1877-6566-7-2

Published: 15 July 2013

Abstract

Recently articles have been published disputing the main finding of the ENCODE project that the majority of the human genome exhibits biochemical indices of function, based primarily on low sequence conservation and the existence of larger genomes in some ostensibly simpler organisms (the C-value enigma), indicating the likely presence of significant amounts of junk. Here we challenge these arguments, showing that conservation is a relative measure based on circular assumptions of the non-functionality of transposon-derived sequences and uncertain comparison sets, and that regulatory sequence evolution is subject to different and much more plastic structure-function constraints than protein-coding sequences, as well as positive selection for adaptive radiation. We also show that polyploidy accounts for the higher than expected genome sizes in some eukaryotes, compounded by variable levels of repetitive sequences of unknown significance. We argue that the extent of precise dynamic and differential cell- and tissue-specific transcription and splicing observed from the majority of the human genome is a more reliable indicator of genetic function than conservation, although the unexpectedly large amount of regulatory RNA presents a conceptual challenge to the traditional protein-centric view of human genetic programming. Finally, we suggest that resistance to these findings is further motivated in some quarters by the use of the dubious concept of junk DNA as evidence against intelligent design.