The Official List of Dead Cliches in Reaching Audiences of real People (O.L.D.C.R.A.P.) about Genomics

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I like doing outreach. I like talking to non-scientists about science, but I’m a relative newbie in science, so the powers-that-be rarely let me give bigger talks to bigger groups. So I frequently find myself watching more senior scientists give talks to non-scientist audiences.

And I am sick of seeing the same trite, tired, ineffective, cliched slides and hearing the same words from each of them.

Henceforth, I propose that we, as concerned scientists, kill and bury the following cliches. This list will never be complete, and I welcome proposals for additions:

1) The Moore’s law slide.

Yes, the cost of sequencing DNA has gone down. It’s gone down fast. It’s gone down faster than it “should.” Why in the world do we care? This ain’t no economics lecture. It used to matter because of the mythical $1000 genome and how close we were to that. We hit it; there were no parades. How about we instead show the rate of production of DNA sequence in hard drives? Or terabytes? Or petabytes? As an aside, the government is good at some things, and quality slide aesthetics seems to not be one of them.

2) “Junk DNA.”
Call it the Jason Voorhees of genomics metaphors for the number of times it’s been killed and revived only to be killed again. Whoever decided that, just because we didn’t know what this DNA was doing, it meant it was junk ought to feel shame. So very much shame. Your mother gave you this DNA, and it was important to her that you have it, so it should be important to you. People who call it “junk DNA” don’t love their mothers.

3) “Dark Matter of the Genome.”


Photo Credit to @ErinPodolak

This is tied up in the recently departed junk DNA accusation. As “junk DNA” gets zombified, a new term has cropped up to admit that, okay, it’s not junk, but we don’t know what it does. Biologists have borrowed a highly defined term from cosmology to describe pieces of the genome with unknown function but known presence. It’s at least better than “junk DNA,” so it’s more like hating your great aunt than hating your mother.

4) The GWAS SNP slide.
There. Is. No. Information. In. This. Presentation. It used to be cute when you could see that you’re pointing out stuff on chromosomes. It used to be cute when there were only a couple colors and a couple regions you cared about. It used to be cute before Calibri. Now, it looks like someone spilled sprinkles on their mom’s team-building memos. What’s the point? There are exact counts of SNPs. There are bar charts that show how many pieces of DNA are correlated with a disease. If you need to rely on a confusing slide to express that genomics is confusing, you miiiight be a scientist.

Okay, end rant. Who’s got more OLDCRAP for me to hate on?

11/16/2015: Back with some new O.L.D.C.R.A.P.

5) Mouse “avatars.”
To study an individual patient’s tumor, some of its cells can be grown in mice. This is technically called a “patient-derived xenograft” and is a tool to give researchers enough cells to do certain tests on. Forgivably, communicators have looked for better, less alien-invoking terms. Sadly, they’ve settled on “avatar.” I know two things about avatars: one, you used to have to pick one when signing up for websites, and two, they’re big blue aliens. The word evokes nothing about treating disease or helping much of anything. It doesn’t convey concepts better than does “model” or “mousey growing system.”

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4 Responses to The Official List of Dead Cliches in Reaching Audiences of real People (O.L.D.C.R.A.P.) about Genomics

  1. John Brothers says:

    I disagree with you on junkDNA. Junk != useless or garbage DNA, it merely works like junk that you keep in your attic but don’t have any need to throw out. Generally, if something is not under selective pressure and is not deleterious to the organism (perfectly reasonable if you believe in evolution), then the safe assumption is that it does not have a function. That would be the null hypothesis.

    Furthermore, ENCODE did not prove that there is no junk/non-functional DNA (transcription != function)? Yes there are cases where more DNA has a function than previously thought, but it is still a much smaller subset of the total genome. As to the term junk DNA, you could go with just calling it non-functional, but I do not think that is very different from “junk”.

    Overall, it makes sense to default to assuming that much our genome has no function until proven otherwise (though this doesn’t mean that it cannot gain function). It’s exactly like the junk you keep around your house until it either causes problems and you throw it away or you find a use for it and thus is is no longer junk. To me that seems like a perfectly reasonable name for the majority of the genome that is likely non-functional DNA.

    • There are two issues at play here. 1) Is “junk” an accurate reflection of the biological function of this DNA. 2) Is “junk” an appropriate metaphor to be using in popular science stories.

      1 is admittedly less settled, though I err more toward “important for something,” even if niche. At least it is neutral; at most it is of unrevealed function. I’m inclined to wait a little longer for a final verdict, since we’re only now getting the tech for detecting functional DNA loops genome-wide.

      2 is more my gripe. I am SICK of hearing how we’re discovering new functionality in “junk DNA.” It’s like you went through the chest at your grandparents’ and found some tool that hadn’t been used for a while and claimed that no one knew this function was there in the first place. A lot of energy goes into passing this DNA across generations, just like when the tool was first made. Just because it’s sat for some time unused doesn’t mean it was always useless; where it is important simply hasn’t been uncovered yet, because we haven’t found the edges yet.

      That you chose to say “Junk != useless or garbage DNA” makes my point about the popularization of this term. To many (I’d daresay most), calling it “junk” does imply it’s useless or garbage. It’s got that connotation, and the term is hindering making interesting points about science, because it’s a lazy term.

  2. John Brothers says:

    1) “important for something,”

    I’ll continue to disagree with this. If you are a creationist, then yes, you would expect that everything in DNA would be important for something, but that simply isn’t the case here. Lots of things are completely neutral and thus follow genetic processes that are not under natural selection. When you have transposons that want to selfishly replicate themselves, but at the end of the day, the replication costs the cell very little, there is no reason to remove the DNA. It is junk. It could gain function, but it most likely does not have a null function. Saying that you default to the idea that it is “important for something” really isn’t the way to go. You should default that it is unimportant unless proven otherwise. If it is probably important for something, why do onions of the genus have vastly different genome sizes?

    Also, detecting something != function. Transcription is promiscuous and leaky.

    2) When I say that junk != useless or garbage DNA, I am saying that it isn’t deleterious for the organism to have, just like the junk in your attic doesn’t cause you problems to have. It doesn’t mean it is functional to the organism. Just because the stuff in your attic had a function or may be functional in the future doesn’t stop the stuff from being neutral junk in your attic. That’s pretty much the whole point of calling it junk. Just like some people have more junk than others, some Eukaryotic genomes have more junk than others.

    “A lot of energy goes into passing this DNA across generations”, but nearly enough that it is deleterious for the organism, so this is a moot point, otherwise, this DNA would be under selective pressure and it is not. It is the C-value paradox in action.

    It seems like you are most concerned with how this is reported in popular science stories, but there are a lot of problems with how popular science stories are reported. I think it is a much bigger problem when we have a giant project like ENCODE making claims such as “80% of the genome is functional” than we do with people call non-coding likely non-function neutral DNA “junk”.

  3. The two issues still stand.

    1) We have not identified a function for all the DNA in the genome. You believe it should be assumed to be junk until proven otherwise. I believe that is a presumptuous stance, since we clearly are still figuring out new purposes for genomic regions in gene regulation. John Rinn said to me recently that we should likely examine something before we label it as junk, difficulties in proving a negative aside. To use the attic metaphor, someone had to decide that’s where those junk items belonged because they are of no use; they did not merely apparate inside, but the label was earned after scrutiny.

    2) There is connotation to the word “junk,” and it is taking away from understanding. I don’t think this is up for disagreement, since it’s happening even in this thread. “Junk” means to at least some “without use,” “without purpose,” “discarded,” “old.” Since these DNA are not especially conserved on their sequence level, they probably cannot be considered “old.” Since they exist in us right now, they cannot be considered “discarded.” This leaves “without use” or “without purpose,” and my argument in point 1 is that we don’t know if they have no purpose, so we CAN’T call them “junk” as the word is intended.

    Yes, my concern is the words we use in popular science stories, and this is why we SHOULDN’T use “junk DNA.” This is literally the title of this post: “Real People” are essential concerns of OLDCRAP. I am sick of the “NEW PURPOSE FOR JUNK DNA” headline. I would have as big a problem with “80% of the genome is functional” as “80% of the genome has no function.” Both are bombastic, and I don’t think we have enough evidence to say either. Alas, editors are seemingly allergic to “possibly” or “potentially” in headlines.

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