The 98% of Our DNA Formerly Thought of as “Junk” Is Alive

Only 2% of the 3 billion DNA base pairs in the human genome actually code for proteins, but the rest of our non-coding genes are proving vital to understanding a host of diseases like autism and schizophrenia.

This Big Idea was suggested by Big Think Delphi Fellow Carl Zimmer.


What’s the Big Idea?

The 98% of the human genome that was once considered to be useless “junk” actually plays a vital role in making us unique.

Why Is It Groundbreaking?

DNA works by transcribing its genetic code of A’s, C’,s G’s, and T’s into proteins, which in turn participate in virtually every cell process from metabolism to reproduction. But only 2% of the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome actually code for proteins; the rest, formerly known as junk DNA, were thought to be useless. But as it turns out, five hundred stretches of this dark DNA are exactly the same in humans as they are in mice, which means that they have remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. Scientists hypothesize that if evolution has chosen to leave these segments alone, they must be doing something vastly important, and recent studies have confirmed their role in regulating and activating genes.

Why Should You Care?

Though non-coding DNA is far from fully understood, it has the potential to transform our understanding of cellular life. Clarifying its role in gene regulation and activation will likely have huge impacts on medicine. For example, many diseases like autism, schizophrenia, and epilepsy cannot be fully explained by our genes, but their cures may lie in this non-coding DNA. This also has important implications for genetic engineering and bioengineering.

Learn More:  

Related Articles
Playlists
Keep reading Show less

Five foods that increase your psychological well-being

These five main food groups are important for your brain's health and likely to boost the production of feel-good chemicals.

Mind & Brain

We all know eating “healthy” food is good for our physical health and can decrease our risk of developing diabetes, cancer, obesity and heart disease. What is not as well known is that eating healthy food is also good for our mental health and can decrease our risk of depression and anxiety.

Keep reading Show less

For the 99%, the lines are getting blurry

Infographics show the classes and anxieties in the supposedly classless U.S. economy.

What is the middle class now, anyway? (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs

For those of us who follow politics, we’re used to commentators referring to the President’s low approval rating as a surprise given the U.S.'s “booming” economy. This seeming disconnect, however, should really prompt us to reconsider the measurements by which we assess the health of an economy. With a robust U.S. stock market and GDP and low unemployment figures, it’s easy to see why some think all is well. But looking at real U.S. wages, which have remained stagnant—and have, thus, in effect gone down given rising costs from inflation—a very different picture emerges. For the 1%, the economy is booming. For the rest of us, it’s hard to even know where we stand. A recent study by Porch (a home-improvement company) of blue-collar vs. white-collar workers shows how traditional categories are becoming less distinct—the study references "new-collar" workers, who require technical certifications but not college degrees. And a set of recent infographics from CreditLoan capturing the thoughts of America’s middle class as defined by the Pew Research Center shows how confused we are.

Keep reading Show less