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Name: Tyler
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Friday, March 06, 2009

thoughts on junk DNA

It's interesting to think of DNA as the source code for life. A lot of ideas fall into place nicely with this analogy.

You need some sort of compiler or interpreter; this role is given to RNA. You need a basic set of atomic instructions, and something like labels to certain parts of the code base - pointers into memory. Codons are the instruction set, with start codons helping to act as labels. A central processing unit executes the commands - ribosomes turn the codon sequences into proteins, and the proteins interact to achieve various goals. Chemistry itself is the ultimate processor, but it takes more focused form in the complex interaction of the enzymes produced by the DNA. Some of the proteins act as inhibitors, decreasing the activity of enzymes; others are activators, doing the opposite. These constructed molecules are capable of effecting or halting the production of still other amino acid complexes. The end result is a logically sophisticated dance worthy of the millennia of evolution which produced it.

As I write code on my own, in an experimental fashion, I sometimes don't worry about the readability of the code. It is in this scenario that the evolution of source code best matches that of DNA. There is a small cost to having extra/old code, yes, but it is far outweighed by the raw functionality created.

Looking at some source which has grown up just a little bit, mostly unsupervised, offers a few suggestions about bits of information that may, at first glance, appear non-functional (aka junk DNA):
  • Old functions which are never or rarely ever called

    As code evolves, some functions become less useful, or replaced by newer ones. It would make sense that some codon sequences would become obsolete, and the encoding would remain in the DNA.

  • Literal strings and other initialization data

    There might be a bit of initialization data in DNA - information not obviously functional, yet still used. For example, some DNA may only be active for a very short time when an embryo is first developing, or triggered temporarily at certain key development stages. An even more interesting hypothesis is the possibility that some instincts, or primal knowledge, are somehow encoded in DNA, in a manner somewhat different than traditional protein transcription.

  • Debug code

    Debug code is useful for figuring out what part of a process has failed. Although there may not be a conscious debugger to check the output, we could still hypothesize that a little extra information about each step in a procedure could give enough information to locate and react to a failure or attack in the system. In this case, the usually non-functional code would be rarely and temporarily activated as a defensive mechanism.


Blogger Arjun said...

Interesting thoughts. Your ideas about junk DNA are right on. Old functions are common, known as pseudogenes. Initiation and control of gene expression through RNAs that don't code for proteins (non-coding RNA) has been the subject of some pretty intense study recently. Not sure about the debugging code idea, but that might have a real world analogy that hasn't yet been figured out.

What's really weird is the recent finding that despite the fact that most of the genome doesn't code for anything, most of the genome is still transcribed. Sort of like a bunch of leftover lines of code that sometimes get executed. Sort of spooky...

6:06 PM  
Blogger Tyler said...

It would be great to have a few nice experimental techniques for testing out these hypotheses. I really have no idea how to do that very well, though.

In general, you could throw together a nice math model of evolution, and see how quickly non-survival-helping features disappear. That would really help determine how important any DNA was, based on its prevalence (possibly across species).

11:58 PM  

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