Scientists unveiled the results of a massive international project Wednesday that they say debunks the notion that most of our genetic code is made up of so-called junk DNA.
The ENCODE project, which involved hundreds of researchers in dozens of labs, also produced what some scientists are saying is like Google Maps for the human genome.
"We like to think about the ENCODE maps similarly," said Elise Feingold at the National Human Genome Research Institute."It allows researchers to look at the chromosomes and then zoom into genes and even down to individual nucleotides in the human genome in much the same way that someone interested in using Google Maps can do so."
For decades, scientists thought that most of our genetic code was essentially useless — basically filler between our genes. Only a tiny fraction — the part that has genes in it — really mattered, according to this thinking.
"The phrase that was thrown around was junk DNA," said Michael Snyder, a geneticist at Stanford University who participated in the project. "I think all of us would agree that really wasn't a good term because it was simply something that we didn't know what it did."
So in 2003, the National Institutes of Health launched the ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA elements) project, at a cost of $288 million. The researchers conducted more than 1,600 experiments to understand what is going on in this supposed genetic wasteland.
The results appear in more than 30 papers published in a slew of leading scientific journals, including Science, Nature and Genome Research.