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Debating ENCODE: Dan Graur, Michael Eisen

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Guests:

Dan Graur, PhD, Professor, University of Houston Bio and Contact Info

Listen (4:45) Active does not equal functional

Listen (3:44) ENCODE claims play into the hands of creationists

Listen (2:24) Big Science never accomplished anything

Listen (3:01) ENCODE should have claimed that 100 percent of genome is funtional

Listen (2:19) Why the strong tone?

Michel Eisen, PhD, Associate Professor of Genetics, Genomics and Development at University of California, Berkeley Bio and Contact Info

Listen (3:54) 80% claim, silly and disingenuous

Listen (3:30) Scientists responsible not the press

Listen (2:23) Is there an appropriate tone for scientific publications?

Listen (9:02) Big Science is a fundamental shift to Soviet style

Listen (4:56) BONUS: Why are you not happy with the White House response to Open Access Petition?

Last week, Twitter went ablaze with the hashtag #ENCODE. ENCODE (the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) is a massive, multi-phase research project costing over $400 million done by over 400 researchers. Project findings, published last September in more than 30 scientific papers, were centered around the claim that though 80% of the genome doesn’t contain genes, it still plays a role in health. The media was quick to pick up on such a claim. The headline "Death of junk DNA" went around the world. Even Science Magazine was quick to issue the Eulogy for Junk DNA.

Now, a group led by Dan Graur, a professor from Houston University, have just published a paper criticizing the ENCODE project and their findings. The Graur et al critique is the third major paper to do so, but went more forcefully after the ENCODE claim that the genome is 80% functional. There were lots of tweets supporting the scientific validity of the Graur paper, but expressing disappointment with it's tone.

We're joined first on today's program by Dan Graur. If you didn't pick it up from the title of his paper (On the Immortality of Television Sets), Dan is an hilarious speaker, and leaves nothing to guesswork as to his position. He is clear on what constitutes "functional" in his view and replies to the charge that his tone was over the top mean.

We're joined next by Michael Eisen, the co-founder of PLOS, for a third party take. Eisen is equally blunt in his answers. He is heavily critical, not only of the ENCODE publications (agreeing more with Graur's definition of "functional"), but also of the ENCODE project in general. When asked about the appropriate tone for a scientific publication, Eisen answers, "the truth." He further surmises that the strength of Graur's tone is more than venom for one claim, paper, or even project. It is a frustration with the NIH over their priorities. A biology professor himself at UC Berkeley, Eisen feels that Big Science projects such as ENCODE and the recently announced brain mapping project are a fundamental shift that threatens molecular biology research in America.

We reached out to some leaders of the ENCODE project but unfortunately were not able to schedule any of them in time for today’s show. We hope to have one of them on soon.