Finding function in the genome with a null hypothesis

Last September, there was a wee bit of a media frenzy over the Phase 2 ENCODE publications. The big story was supposed to be that ‘junk DNA is debunked’ – ENCODE had allegedly shown that instead of being filled with genetic garbage, our genomes are stuffed to the rafters with functional DNA. In the backlash against this storyline, many of us pointed out that the problem with this claim is that it conflates biochemical and organismal definitions of function: ENCODE measured biochemical activities across the human genome, but those biochemical activities are not by themselves strong proof that any particular piece of DNA actually does something useful for us.

The claim that ENCODE results disprove junk DNA is wrong because, as I argued back in the fall, something crucial is missing: a null hypothesis. Without a null hypothesis, how do you know whether to be surprised that ENCODE found biochemical activities over most of the genome? What do you really expect non-functional DNA to look like?

In our paper in this week’s PNAS, we take a stab at answering this question with one of the largest sets of randomly generated DNA sequences ever included in an experimental test of function. Continue reading “Finding function in the genome with a null hypothesis”