28 April 2011

Alu need to know about parasitic DNA: Alu elements and blindness

ResearchBlogging.orgAge-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause of blindness in humans, and the leading cause of visual impairment during advanced age. The condition comes in two basic forms, the most severe of which is untreatable. Called geographic atrophy (GA), this condition involves the steady destruction of the retinal pigment epithelium, a layer of tissue in the eye that is essential for the health and maintenance of the photoreceptors in the retina. Loss of the pigment epithelium means certain death for the photoreceptors, and that means visual impairment and then blindness for the affected person.

A major publication in Nature last month (Kaneko et al., "DICER1 deficit induces Alu RNA toxicity in age-related macular degeneration," Nature 17 March 2011) now points to one likely cause of AMD, and in the process provides a chilling example of what can happen when the parasitic Alu elements in our genomes (see the previous post for an introduction) are left unrestrained.

23 April 2011

Alu need to know about parasitic DNA: Introduction to Alu elements

Defenders of intelligent design theory often dwell on the topic of "junk DNA," which has been molded into a masterpiece of folk science. The ID approach to "junk DNA" involves a fictional story about "Darwinism" discouraging its study, and a contorted and simplistic picture of a "debate" about whether "junk DNA" has "function." The fictional story is ubiquitous despite being repeatedly debunked. But the picture of an ongoing "debate" about "function" is harder to sort out. Like most propaganda, that picture contains enough truth to sound plausible. (Browse my "Junk DNA" posts, and work by Ryan Gregory and Larry Moran, for more information on errors and folk science associated with these topics.)

There is, in fact, some scientific disagreement about functions of various elements in genomes, but it's not the crude standoff that ID apologists depict, and it has very little to do with "Darwinism." The debate, if we must call it that, is about at least two matters: 1) the extent to which certain genomic elements contribute to normal function or development of organisms; and 2) the means by which we might determine this. The debate is not about whether non-coding DNA can have function, or even about whether some segments of non-coding DNA do have function. That debate was invented by anti-evolution propagandists.

01 April 2011

34th Carnival of Evolution

Welcome to the 34th Edition (1 April 2011) of the Carnival of Evolution, and welcome to Quintessence of Dust. It's nice to be hosting this fine carnival, and to see that it's still going strong.

I've organized the carnival under some chapter and section headings that I got from some old Victorian's magnum opus, but I think you'll find the topics require no further creative embellishment.