How many different words did Shakespeare use? Google tells me: 31,534. How many letters did Shakespeare use? 26 – including, if my memory serves me: “Thou zed, thou unnecessary letter!” So it’s not the number of letters which counts; it’s what you do with them.

This consideration must have consoled the scientists who attempted to estimate the number of genes in the human genome. Someone started with a splendidly exaggerated figure of more than six million. But that rapidly came down to more realistic figures during the 1990s, to a final 23,000 or so, when the genome was finally mapped at the turn of the century. It was a surprisingly small figure to be the complete code for human complexity. Given that a chicken has about 16,000 genes and a grape about 30,000 we may guess that the exact number is not the point.

But then genetics have always been surprising. It was a surprise when good Fr Mendel’s experiment with peas demonstrated that inherited characteristics were not a blend but were transmitted by discrete entities. It was a further surprise when these entities resolved into four letters: A, G, C and T, repeated in a different order over and over again: just four different letters needed to describe life. And a surprise to me to learn that every cell in our bodies contains as many as three billion base pairs. And if all the information carried by just one of these letters were written out it would require a book of 1.5 million pages. All I can say is: Phew!

But there were more surprises yet to come. The mapping of the human genome was a moment of great promise. It would only be a matter of time before we discovered the holy grail of identifying the genetic errors which cause human disease, and correcting them. Or the less holy grail of discovering how to bless our progeny with all the finest characteristics. The ultimate version of our family: homo sapiens artificialis, was only just over the horizon. Except that he wasn’t. It was gradually discovered that the regulatory elements used genes and clusters of genes in extremely complex ways. It was surprisingly hard to detect direct cause and effect. This could sometimes be usefully achieved in some discrete instances, but it became clear that nirvana was further off than we thought.

The situation was complicated by non-genetic regulators which were attached to genes – it would seem as a result of the organism’s experience – and which could to some extent be inherited. The last decade has been important for epigenetics, as this science is called. Interestingly, this has shown that the French naturalist Lamarck’s theory of the heritability of acquired characteristics still has something to contribute to our understanding. The programme of research ahead is formidable.

And that is only the start. The proportion of the genome known to be active was about three per cent. It was assumed that the far greater part was just surplus. But a major report on this “junk” DNA, published this September and known by the acronym ENCODE, tells us that 80 per cent is biochemically very active indeed. The problem is that we don’t yet know what it is active at. It may be a huge part of the regulatory procedure, or it may just be surplus duplication or abandoned in our long evolutionary history. If the former, it is a prize. If the latter, it will exhaust many resources to no useful end. One scientist in the project simply described the DNA as a jungle.

But although only about three per cent of DNA encodes proteins, frustratingly, much of human disease is associated with the non-coding areas of which we have known little until now. Will ENCODE at last lead us to mastering heritable disease?

Given the surprises so far, I would be foolish to forecast the future, but I can make a stab at some of the moral questions which will exercise us. First, our long-established habit of deducing moral imperatives from structure will have to survive our acceptance that God created our structures indirectly and dynamically through evolution. Thus, for example, the human fertility rate, developed during quite different conditions, is about four times as high as is required for population replacement in developed countries. How would we lawfully correct this accidental maladaptation? Related to this are the problems which can arise from both over-fertility and under-fertility: gross changes in fertility rates tend to create serious age imbalances in populations.

A second, contemporary question is the use of mitochondrial DNA from a third person, in order to avoid mitochondrial disease in a conceptus. Mitochondria is not personal genetic material; it is descended from a bacterium and is concerned with cell functions. The suggestion that the conceptus will have three parents owes more to rhetoric than reality. Subsidiary moral questions arise: potential need for additional conceptions, leading to the death of unused embryos; interference with the natural conduct of intercourse (see previous paragraph); and the extent of our rights to manipulate conceptions. While all of these might arise in any one case, the moral issues fundamentally differ.

Behind this lies a large question: what are the proper limits to our lawful interference in the genome? The issues of curative genetic manipulation raise different questions from the provision of “desirable” characteristics such as intelligence or an extra inch or two of height. We can have no doubt from the current use of eugenic abortion to ensure a child of a wanted sex that this will be a live issue. We shall need very clear heads.

If you would like to look more deeply at the ENCODE project, try  http://www.nature.com/encode/#/threads. I suggest that you start by looking at a short video on that page, titled Voices of ENCODE.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Quentin queries and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to JUNK?

  1. Lafu Ka says:

    The sad thing is that the first response of most people to the idea that science, like everything, needs limits is “How DAAAARE you! You’ll drag us back to the Dark Ages!” Well, quite apart from the fact that the Dark Ages have been widely regarded as a myth by historians for decades (I say this because they always mention the Dark Ages), the plain fact of the matter is that Science is not inherently good or evil and has done both in fairly equal measure. Just as it was science when they wipe out a disease, so to was it science when they conducted the syphilis experiments, and when the Nazis conducted their hypothermia trials (and other horrors), and so too will it be science when they create a plague that can wipe out a specific race of people.

    Science is no more good or evil than a hammer or any other tool, and the people who treat it like a tribe, ideology, or even a psudo-religion really need to realise this and confront it properly before they do something *really* bad. Unfortunately it is in the nature of these people to just take another deep breath and yell that science would never do anything mean or uncivil. Yes, yes it would, It does whatever people use it for.

    • Lafu Ka says:

      “First, our long-established habit of deducing moral imperatives from structure will have to survive our acceptance that God created our structures indirectly and dynamically through evolution.”

      By the way, did you know that scientists now use evolutionary algorithms all the time? Kinda puts a dampener on all the arguments that claim God would never use evolution to make something when our own scientists do it!

      • Vincent says:

        Leaving aside Quentin’s question about deducing moral imperatives from structure (a time bomb surely?) he raises the important question of how far, and in what ways, can genetic manipulation be a gift or a curse. We know that science will get rather good at this. But I think we should be really concerned about where it will lead.

      • tim says:

        Two great comments from Lafu Ka. Science is conducted by scientists, who are human like the rest of us. Their special ethic is to respect the facts – fine, but not enough. And like the rest of us, they do not always live up even to this ideal.

        An interesting point is the unwillingness that has been shown by some scientists to accept the INCODE assessment of maybe as little as 20% junk, for non-scientific reasons. There have been complaints that the previous argument (that God wouldn’t design a genome which was 97% useless) has been undermined! This only shows that some scientists can be just as illogical as some creationists. More generally, I argue that God may have intended not to leave irrefutable evidence of His existence in the design of His creation, partly on the basis that if He had, we’d probably have noticed it by now. And if He intended to conceal such evidence, He’s capable of designing Man using what appear to be random methods. I await a proof that this is impossible.

      • Vincent says:

        I don’t see that ‘random’ causes a problem. If we accept evolution and so the survival of the fittest we must accept the non-survival of the less fit. And we also know that literally millions of gene mutations, of which only a minute fraction are of benefit, occur every second of the day. Why does the vas deferens go up into the abdomen? Because the gonads were once kept safe in the belly. No jockstraps needed.
        I think that’s all OK by God because he can comprehend every item of what has happened and what will happen without breaking sweat.

      • Clive Copus says:

        The issue is not whether we evolved, but whether we were designed; and, in the light of the recent extraordinary discoveries of the Encode Project, it would seem that the answer to that question is an emphatic ‘yes’. Far from requiring any alteration to the Church’s tried and trusted methods of deducing moral imperatives, this simply reinforces the wisdom of her traditional ‘natural law’ approach: in short, God designed us to behave in a particular way, so that’s the way we should behave.

  2. Brendan O' Leary. says:

    Lafu Ka has pinpointed something that has haunted western society since the real horrors of the last century. Indeed popular fiction makes use of it for entertainment value – but of course it could beome alarmingly prophetic on a catastrphic scale. In the past and indeed now, the Catholic Church has a proud history of scientific discovery particularly through its priest- scientists. I recall the late ” the servant of God ” Professor Jerome Lejeune and his pioneering work with ethical stem -cell research – whom many saw as a big intellectual figure in the ” pro- life ” movement. It all seems a long time ago, and well may most of us as ” outsiders ” echo a ” phew ” and more commonly now a ” wow ” at the pace of discovery in the biological sciences. By the way a few more coverts to Faith, in that particular branch of science would be most acceptable !
    It is most gratifying that The Pontifical Academy of Science invites through the Holy Father the worlds most eminent scientists in their field believers and non – believers alike ,to share and discuss in symposium their work , hopefully making each other aware of the perplexing moral issues facing the world. I have faith that carrying on the work of the late Blessed John Paul 2 , Pope Gregory will continue to plough the fertile interface between religion and science.
    Our world is getting smaller, and to reinforce these understandings and discoveries of our scientists there must be firm discussions between them and philosopher/ theologians to underwrite the values and ethics by which we live by and pass onto successive generations. International law has to be used and abided by more rigorously in the social and particularly commercial sphere to protect societies against Lafu Ka ‘s fear of the nightmare scenario. Politics is another area which needs special attention today, because of the obvious demotion of religious faith in public and proffesional spheres – America not withstanding- and the zeitgeist of secular atheism. Unless there is a universal understanding comparable to Catholic teaching on the paramount principle of the sanctity of human life as a future model for living then the harpies of liberal secularism who are becoming more dominant year by year will continue to wear aware the resolve of Europes body politic.
    I personally have confidence arising purely from faith and reason that even the double- edged sword of genetic discovery can be reigned in and used for the common good of humanity if the Believing world, particularly Christianity, by the grace of God supplies the moral brake . Who else is there to do it.?

    • Rahner says:

      “if the Believing world, particularly Christianity, by the grace of God supplies the moral brake…”
      er, how exactly?

  3. tim says:

    Brendan, I strongly support in particular your final paragraph (though I think it should read ‘reined in’ – like a horse. Apologies, I’m an incorrigible pedant!).

  4. Brendan O' Leary. says:

    Fine Tim, ” brake” is too strong a word anyway. The belief that God can’t make rubbish means that the ENCODE programme which the geneticists regard as ” junk ” must have some intrinsic purpose in the grand scheme of things. Whether it remains dormant having been used by our Maker in some past evolutionary way or is there to be used as a future catalyst to some greater good by us for mankind, remains to be seen. I will leave that point hanging rather than risk getting out of my depth !
    In answer to Rahner, I still see the Church as having the intellectual muscle and the prescence in the scientific world to be relevant in todays world . With its ability to claim the high ground on moral issues still surprisingly intact and Christianity’s prophetic ability arising from humility before its Maker still a powerful force in the debating arena, I am still optimistic that the potential horrors awaiting the world by taking the wrong direction in genetics can at least be realised by science and possibly averted. But, of course there is always the ‘ elephant in the room ‘ -the rougue scientist ! This may seem to you too rosy a picture , but I believe ultimately in the power of Gods grace in the world. Something akin to the search undertaken by the Hadron Collider – we know it’s there to be found but we can’t quite grasp its permanence or even explain it fully.

    • Rahner says:

      I don’t see much sign of the Church’s influence in, current, bio-ethical legislation and regulation…..

      • Brendan O' Leary. says:

        Maybe not, but the important thing is to keep the issues in the public eye. Certainly, the HFEA in Britain has shown little sympathy with ” pro-life ” organisations who for example want to reduce the abortion limit to 12 weeks , even though they is a strong feeling amongst MP’S and the general public who would approve this small measure. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary has himself expressed such a wish for change – that in itself is a small triumph, albeit he gives it in a personal capacity. It is organisations such as SPUC that has kept the pressure on our politicians and continues to enlighten the public on the wrong decisions we are taking in the field of bio-thics.

  5. Brendan O' Leary. says:

    Oh! I forgot to add one thing ………. but is intrinsic to and absolutely necessary for our survival .

  6. Quentin says:

    In my recent posting I suggested that there are moral issues to be considered which are related to genetic manipulation. A new issue has been raised concerning the possibility of turning skin cells into eggs – which may then be fertilised. There is a brief article at http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=8798 which considers the problem. The ethicist author is not, I deduce, a Catholic. But perhaps it’s a good starting point for discussion

  7. John Candido says:

    If I could momentarily interrupt everybody’s flow of thought, and tell you of an online etymology dictionary I have recently discovered?


  8. Brendan O' Leary. says:

    To my way of thinking Quentin, Dr. Brassington as a philosopher seems rather muddle-headed about his conclusions on this issue. While welcoming the possible birth of a neonate given this rather bizarre procedure .Given the obvious risks and questionable ethics of doing so, he therefore seems to countenance the perverse use of the law of unintended consequences. It seems to me that humanity is bedevilled by this error in taking such risks. Can I draw everyones attention to a book I’ve just finished reading. ‘ The Face of God ‘ by Roger Scruton. I am in no way an academic, but he is my kind of philospher regarding the baseline for Christian ethics.

  9. John Candido says:

    Here is another beautiful resource! The ‘Middle English Dictionary’, or ‘MED’ for short, is freely available online.


  10. John Candido says:

    ‘Science is not inherently good or evil and has done both in fairly equal measures.’ Lafu Ka

    Christians can be too pessimistic at times concerning science and human nature. It is obvious that any knowledge, implement, or technology can be used for nefarious purposes. This is indisputable. It is equally indisputable that the same capacities can be used for good. Doesn’t this balance or tend to negate the full negative potential of any future knowledge? Apart from this, it is a fact that there are more good people than evil, or that there are more good scientists, engineers, business people, teachers, researchers, etc. than nefarious individuals.

  11. Brendan O' Leary. says:

    Given the corrosive nature of evil ( sin ) …… ” all that is neded for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing. “

    • John Candido says:

      Yes, exactly! However, good men and women mostly act when they see a wrong. It might not be immediate, or visible, or timely; but they do act eventually to defeat or limit evil.

  12. John Candido says:

    Professor Sir John B. Gurdon of Britain and Professor Shinya Yamanaka of Japan have been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology. Their achievement is based on the discovery of how to turn mature stem cells into pluripotent stem cells. This means that this technique can be used as an alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells, which are harvested from human embryos.



  13. Brendan O' Leary. says:

    I agree John, this is great news for bioethics and our planet. The Prize keeps the moral and ethical issues firmly in the public mind and confirms the good work done by others before him. Indeed continuing this joyous theme – it is worth remembering that memorable saying of Ghandi’s – I never tire of pondering it…… ” When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it – always. ”
    It is not surprising that the Mahatma was drawn to Christ – although Christians did not endear themselves to him much. I believe Edmund Burke who predated him had very much the same thing in mind. Pure truth ( good ) continues to will out as long as we take up the challenge daily, making sure that Gods grace will shine through us and proclaim His Truth to a needy world, without which it cannot survive…… ” and all things will be well, and all manner of things will be well. “

  14. St Joseph says:

    Good News for stem cell research.
    It only goes to prove that if we stick to the Truth-it will see us through to the end.Regardless of all those who believe otherwise . We must always continue to speak the Truth-even if it is not fashionable with the ‘worlds thinking’

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