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Junk DNA and the design of living things

by Michael Nielsen on March 7, 2006

This is a plug for a free public lecture (with free drinks and nibblies after) about junk DNA and the role it plays in biology, by Professor John Mattick of the University of Queensland. It’s to be held 6:30 pm, Monday March 13 in the Judith Wright Center, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane.

(The lecture is the first of a monthly series to be known as BrisScience. My partner, Jen Dodd, is running the series.)

The topic of the talk is really interesting. One of the biggest problem in modern biology is how we go from DNA to fully fledged living beings. It’s pretty well understood how we go from DNA to the proteins which form the building blocks for living beings. But that’s a far cry from a full understanding: knowing how to put together a steel girder doesn’t imply that you can build the Eiffel tower or the Empire State building. Figuring out the link between DNA and the large-scale structure (the architectural design, if you like) seems to be very poorly understood.

The speaker, John Mattick, has some really interesting (and controversial) ideas about how this happens. He thinks the so-called junk DNA in the human genome (pieces of the DNA which don’t code for proteins) carries the information about the design. As an outsider it’s hard for me to judge how successful the ideas are, but they’re certainly getting some attention: his work was named by Science magazine in its list of the ten most significant breakthroughs of 2004, and he had an article about it in Scientific American a couple of years back.

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