“Groundbreaking” ‘Duon’ Paper Only Continues Research From Prior Studies

There is a lot of chatter on the internets about the press release from the University of Washington about a paper published in the journal Science this week. One claim within the press release is that findings in the present study uncover a ‘hidden’ code within human DNA that scientists had no prior knowledge of. As many have written, this assumption is completely false and grossly exagerated.

After reading the paper (paywall), I can say the study does add a wealth of new information to an already known phenomenon. I recommend reading the article if one is in the molecular biology or human genetics fields. However, the press release about this study should be retracted for the amount of misleading claims raised within it.

In fact, the authors write in the final paragraph,

Our results indicate that simultaneous encoding of amino acid and regulatory information within exons is a major functional feature of complex genomes. The information architecture of the received genetic code is optimized for superimposition of additional information (3435), and this intrinsic flexibility has been extensively exploited by natural selection. Although TF binding within exons may serve multiple functional roles, our analyses above is agnostic to these roles, which may be complex (36).

Pay close attention to the parenthetical numbers within the quote. These indicate the statement is referencing a prior publication. 34 is reference to a paper from 2007 in Genome Research entitled, “The genetic code is nearly optimal for allowing additional information within protein-coding sequences.” and can be found here. 35 is a paper from 2010 also in Genome Research; “Overlapping codes within protein-coding sequences.” found here. And 36 is from Nature Genetics earlier this year entitled, “DNase I–hypersensitive exons colocalize with promoters and distal regulatory elements” found here.

A question for UW Today,

If these authors uncovered an unknown, hidden code within DNA, how could they reference earlier studies that essentially elaborated upon these same ‘secrets’?

I’ll be waiting for an answer…

Repeat after me: There is no newly discovered hidden code in DNA.

It is a very sad and unfortunate occurrence when newly released research findings are hyped and overstated. This week the University of Washington Office of News & Information released a press release embarrassingly called “Scientists discover double meaning in genetic code“. Since then, the release has been picked up by websites across the globe. In that way, the press release did its job. Unfortunately, the statements within the release along with the title have done a world of harm. I can only hope it was unintended.

The release starts by stating scientists discovered a second code hiding within DNA.

This second code contains information that changes how scientists read the instructions contained in DNA and interpret mutations to make sense of health and disease.

This ‘second code’ will not change anything scientists do regarding studying DNA. This ‘hidden second code’ has been known and studied for decades.

Since the genetic code was deciphered in the 1960s, scientists have assumed that it was used exclusively to write information about proteins. UW scientists were stunned to discover that genomes use the genetic code to write two separate languages. One describes how proteins are made, and the other instructs the cell on how genes are controlled. One language is written on top of the other, which is why the second language remained hidden for so long.

Let me rewrite this paragraph to make it factual:

Since the genetic code was deciphered in the 1950s, scientists have continued to find additional layers of complexity in the regulation of how genes are transcribed to make proteins. The current study from UW scientists have added additional knowledge to this growing field.

This is the most unfortunate part:

“For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made,” said Stamatoyannopoulos. “Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways.”

This release was written by writers in a news department as a marketing piece, but when the scientist also grossly exaggerates the findings, it is very sad. Like Emily Willingham said in Forbes, “I can only hope that Stamatoyanopoulos didn’t really say that”. Scientists have not made any such assumption and have decades of evidence to the contrary.

The study shows that changes in the DNA sequence can have two-fold consequences upon the protein made from it. It can change the amino acid sequence of the protein and change which proteins bind that help transcribe the DNA into the RNA used to create the protein. This is not new. The finding that made this study worth of the prestige of publishing into Science is the frequency of the DNA code that is used to determine which proteins bind to the DNA to create the right form of the protein. These proteins, known as transcription factors, have been known for decades and bind to a number of DNA sequences to ensure the cell creates the exact protein needed.

As is common in press releases, the last part of the piece tries to explain DNA and the language of genes. In this aspect, the release does an even worse job:

The genetic code uses a 64-letter alphabet called codons.

The genetic code uses 64 different combinations of nucleotide sets of three, called codons; most of which code for one of the twenty amino acids needed to make a protein.

I could keep going, but I’m exhausted by trying to set the record straight.