by Linda Moulton Howe
"There are some genes we
know a lot about, but there are many genes
we have no idea what they do. So, that’s the baffling
part to me –
there is still so much work to be done just to figure
out how it all works."
- John McPherson, Ph.D.,
Baylor College of
January 18, 2007 Houston, Texas
- The human body has about 100 trillion
cells. Inside each of those cells is the nucleus that contains the
genome—46 human chromosomes which have the blueprint for building a
Every one of the 100
trillion cells in the human body has a blueprint
about how to build that body. Those "genome" instructions are laid
3 billion "letters" on the 46 human chromosomes of DNA.
The Center for the
Advancement of Genomics (TCAG).
Each chromosome is one long
string of DNA that is tightly coiled in a compact bundle.
Chromosomes have the four "letters" of genetic code: A, C, G, T
(adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine) which pair off in
Those nucleotides are laid out like
zeroes and ones in computer software, but are bunched in groups of
genes and long, puzzling non-coding sections. Those non-coding
sequences are referred to as "junk DNA" and make up a
surprisingly large 97% of the genome, which no one
Each chromosome is
one long string of DNA carrying genetic code
to build a human body.
The Center for the
Advancement of Genomics (TCAG)
The Human Genome
“Human Genome Project.” We’ve been hearing those words since 1990
when the U. S. Dept. of Energy and U. S. National Institutes of
Health formally created the project. The goal has been to
identify all the genes in human DNA, the blueprint for a human
Why the Dept. of Energy?
Because since the creation of atomic
bombs in the 1940s, scientists have tried to understand what
radiation does to human bodies and what mutations it causes in human
After sixteen years and the hard work of 2,800 scientists around the
world, there are some answers and surprises.
First, if you think of the human body as a book, then all of the
pages and text together are the genome. The word was coined from
genes and chromosomes. The DNA in every cell contains the
whole book about how to make a human body.
The “words” in each genome “book” are the genes. The Human Genome
Project expected to find at least 100,000 genes were necessary
to create a human body. But one of the big surprises is the number
of genes is only about 22,000, less than several other Earth
creatures, especially plants – which have as many as 40,000 genes.
The main reason for the smaller number of genes than expected is
that human genes are capable of multi-tasking the production of
proteins. You might say the human genome book has a more advanced
text, but it still takes 3 billion letters to write out those 22,000
Now we come to the current main problem in the Human Genome
Project: what is the punctuation in a string of 3 billion
letters? Scientists have learned some sentence fragments, but
do not know full sentences. That could take at least another
decade to figure out how all those letters and words make our bodies
Another big puzzle is that inside some of the 22,000 genome “words”
are strings of repeating “letters.” Imagine seeing a hundred letter
g's together and not having a clue why they are there. Scientists
call long strings of repeating letters “non-coding
sequences,” or “junk DNA.” Strangely, there is a lot of
junk DNA in the human DNA molecule.
That’s why a January 11, 2007, Canadian blog by John Stokes
and distributed on the web caught my attention. The headline was: “Scientists
find extraterrestrial genes in human DNA.”
Then the first paragraph stated:
“A group of researchers working at
the Human Genome Project indicate that they made an astonishing
scientific discovery: They believe so-called 97% non-coding
sequences in human DNA is no less than genetic code of
extraterrestrial life forms.”
[Editor's Note: Scientists have
long been puzzled by the fact that 97% of the DNA in human
cells does not code for proteins and appears to consist of
meaningless and repeating sequences. The possibility that this
apparently useless DNA has some as yet unknown function
continues to tantalize scientists. See: F. Flam, "Hints of a
language in junk DNA," Science 266:1320, 1994.]
January 11, 2007,
"Canada's Progressive Blog."
The Canadian blog says the name
of the Human Genome Project “group leader” responsible for the
discovery that junk DNA is genetic code of E.T.s is Prof.
Sam Chang. I could not find any Google listing for Prof. Sam
Chang, so I decided to get a reality check on the truth from John
Dr. McPherson is currently Associate
Professor in the Dept. of Human and Molecular Genetics at Baylor
College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
Over the past ten years, Dr. McPherson
was also Co-Director of the Genome Center at Washington University
in St. Louis. There, he was the lead scientist in that university’s
efforts to map the human genome, as well as mouse and chicken
I began by asking him: What is junk
John McPherson, Assoc. Professor, Dept. of Human and
Molecular Genetics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, and
former Co-Director of the Genome Center, Washington University, St.
“That still remains to be seen. But
it could be many different things.
There are some of the DNA that we
have termed ‘junk’ in the past, which might have been
essentially a virus that infected us and jumped around and made
copies of itself within our DNA. Then over time – because
eventually over time that would destroy us – it was quieted
down, but its remnants are still there.
There are definitely pieces of DNA
that are still mobile within our genome, but they are just very
quiet. You can activate these things artificially in cell
culture, for example. You can get them to jump all over the
place. There are cases where diseases have been shown to be
caused by one of these elements moving into a gene in an
It then gets propagated in their
family and that causes the disease. So there are what we call
mobile elements in the genome. Where they come from
originally is a good question. But there is the theory they are
just basically viruses that came along and tagged along with us.
Genomes are growing and expanding and some are decreasing. So,
the junk DNA - right now it might have a role in that the
spacing it puts in our genes might be required. We don’t really
HOW LONG DO YOU THINK IT WILL BE
BEFORE YOU REALLY DO KNOW?
I don’t know. I mean, we certainly have some ideas of what
things are doing, but I think in the next ten years, we’ll have
a better idea.
IT WILL TAKE AN ENTIRE OTHER DECADE?
I believe it will another decade to figure out much of the
genome. Even then, there will still be a lot of questions. But
just even to come up with what we think are all the genes and
how they interact with each other is at least another decade.
WOW, THAT’S 2017!
Yep. Getting the sequence was just the start. It really was. It
took a long time to get it. That was a 15-year-long project from
the beginning. Not all sequencing was done in the last few
years, but it was all the preparation before that in learning
how to do it.
Now that we have the (human genome)
sequence, we have to figure out what it does. And that’s one of
the reasons we’re sequencing lots of other genomes so we can
compare them and by comparing them, figure out what things do.
So, there’s lots more to be done.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU’VE FOUND THAT WOULD FALL INTO THE CATEGORY
OF BAFFLING, UNEXPLAINED, IN THE SEQUENCING OF THE HUMAN GENES?
I think the biggest thing that is baffling to me is how it all
works. We have – it’s often referred to as the ‘Parts List.’ We
know the genes, we can look at them, but we still have to figure
out what they do. Just by looking at the sequence, we can’t –
there are some we can predict what it does, but there are many
that we can’t. It’s still a big puzzle.
It’s just like an analogy might be a
jigsaw puzzle where you’ve got all the pieces, but you don’t
have the box that shows you what the picture is. And you have to
put it together. And figure out what it all is. We’re sort of in
that stage in many ways. There are some genes we know a lot
about, but there are many genes we have no idea what they do.
So, that’s the baffling part to me – there is still so much work
to be done just to figure out how it all works.
Canadian Blog - Who Is Prof. Sam
HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF A SCIENTIST NAMED PROF. SAM CHANG?
Sam Chang. Not, it does not ring a bell.
SO YOU PERSONALLY HAVE NOT WORKED WITH HIM ON THE GENOME
PROJECT? SAM CHANG?
No, not that I’m aware of. There are a lot of people involved we
never got to meet, but we only met through emails. But that name
does not ring a bell.
IN THE CAPACITY YOU HAD IN ST. LOUIS AND TODAY, SHOULD YOU KNOW
MOST OF THE MAIN PEOPLE?
Most of the main characters, yes. Although it was very
international and there were some labs that we never got to go
to or meet the people from. So, some of the names don’t stick in
my head from back then.
THE REASON I’M ASKING IS THAT I HAVE A JANUARY 11, 2007,
CANADIAN BLOG ABOUT A PROF. SAM CHANG
SAYING THAT HUMAN JUNK DNA HAS NOW BEEN PROVED BY THE HUMAN
GENOME PROJECT TO BE FROM SOME KIND OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL CODING.
(laughs) Well, I’ve never heard of that! (laughs) I’ve never
heard of that before and it certainly does not sound very
credible to me. But I haven’t seen the article. [ I give him the
I WONDER HOW THIS LONG ARTICLE WAS MADE UP?
Actually I’m just looking on the web while I’m talking to you.
If you do a search, there are all sorts of things pointing
WHERE WOULD THIS INFORMATION AND NAME, PROF. SAM CHANG,
I don’t know. (laughs) I find it actually kind of funny.
SINCE YOU ARE AN EXPERT IN GENETIC RESEARCH, CAN YOU AT LEAST
COMMENT ON THE POSSIBILITY THAT HOMO SAPIENS SAPIENS
MIGHT HAVE BEEN SEEDED BY LIFE FROM SOME PLACE ELSE AND IT MIGHT
SHOW UP IN SOME WAY IN OUR HUMAN GENOME SEQUENCING PROJECT?
Well, as far as I know, there is no evidence to support that.
So, this is all news to me.
CRICK AND WATSON WON THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR DESCRIBING THE DOUBLE
HELIX DNA MOLECULE – AT LEAST 50 YEARS AGO?
1953, I think.
shows James Watson the double helix model of DNA
that they started building on March 4, 1953, and finished in the
evening of March 7, 1953,
in their Austin Wing room at the Cavendish Laboratories,
I KNOW THERE WAS A PAPER CRICK
PUBLISHED IN ICARUS WITH BIOCHEMIST, LESLIE ORGEL. THEIR
HYPOTHESIS WAS THAT BECAUSE THERE IS THE SAME SPIRAL DNA
MOLECULE IN ALL LIFE ON EARTH - WHICH THE SCIENTISTS DID NOT
THINK COULD HAPPEN ACCIDENTALLY - THEN IT MEANT PANSPERMIA,
THE ACT OF SEEDING DNA ON THIS PLANET FROM OUTSIDE HAD TO HAVE
BEEN OUR ORIGIN.
[ Editor's Note:
"Directed Panspermia," Icarus, International Journal of Solar
System Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3, July 1973 by F. H.C. Crick and
L. E. Orgel, © 1973 Academic Press, Inc.]
Right, I’ve seen theories like that where people believe that
DNA or bacteria or something came to Earth on an asteroid or
what have you and that DNA and RNA weren’t formed in the
bubbling oceans of the world. Anything is possible because they
are all theories at this point.
We don’t know for sure where things
came from, so it is possible that the first DNA came to the
world from outside and then evolved. Whether you want to bring
up religious arguments, I think that’s fine, too. They can all
in a way fit into the same arguments. You could say the first
DNA was seeded by God. Or you can say it came from an
extraterrestrial source? Who knows?
WOULD YOU AGREE WITH ORGELL, CRICK AND THAT GROUP THAT IT IS
IMPOSSIBLE ALL EARTH LIFE WOULD HAVE EXACTLY THE SAME DNA?
It’s an interesting observation. You might think if it was all
coming from the primordial soup, so to speak, that there might
be different sources that came up with different ways of doing
(life). There are, for example, RNA viruses which have only RNA
and don’t have any DNA. So, some of the theories re that the RNA
came first and the DNA evolved later.
I don’t know. It might be that it’s such a rare event for it to
happen at all that it (panspermia event) did seed
everything. I think any theory is just as likely as the next at
this point in time.
WOULD YOU AND YOUR COLLEAGUES HAVE ANY WAY OF IDENTIFYING
SOMETHING THAT WAS INTRODUCED IN THE GENE SEQUENCE THAT WOULD
SEEM HIGHLY ARTIFICIAL TO YOU, SUCH AS EXTRATERRESTRIAL
PROGRAMMING, COMPARED TO THE REST OF HUMAN GENOME SEQUENCING?
Probably not. If you look hard enough, you’ll find patterns in
anything and depending on how you want to interpret them. For
example, there’s lots of articles by people who say if you take
every 5th letter of every 3rd word of the Bible, you spell out
this or that. Genes are the same sort of thing. If you look at
patterns long enough and find different ways of looking at them,
you will eventually find something by chance.
So, whether we would recognize something, I don’t think we would
be able to recognize it (ET genetic manipulation) as being
anything out of the ordinary. We can certainly recognize
patterns within the DNA. But what maybe we don’t understand yet
what they do and they might be involved in the structure of the
DNA and how it is all compacted into each cell. We just don’t
know that yet.
THE BOTTOM LINE IS THAT EVEN IF HOMO SAPIENS SAPIENS WAS
THE PRODUCT OF SOME KIND OF SEEDING AND THEN GENETIC
MANIPULATION BY OTHER THAN HUMAN INTELLIGENCES, THAT HUMANS
WOULD NEVER BE ABLE TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN THE CURRENT DNA
THAT THEY ARE AND IT HAVING BEEN MANIPULATED BY ANOTHER
It would be unlikely to have, to be certain, that’s for sure. I
think you could look at a lot of patterns and come up with a lot
of things, but I think someone else can look at it just a little
different way and see something different. I think people will
see what they want to see in the patterns.
No Sexual Link Between
Neanderthalis and Homo Sapiens
THIS COMES TO THE WORK OF PABLO SVANTE, WHO HAS BEEN
ANALYZING AN ELBOW THAT WAS FOUND IN A GERMAN CAVE. THEY THINK
THE CAVE WENT BACK TO THE END OF NEANDERTHALIS ABOUT 40,000
IF THERE ARE AT LEAST 19 MAJOR DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE GENOME
SEQUENCING ON THE NEANDERTHALIS BONE COMPARED TO MODERN HOMO
SAPIENS SAPIENS. THE CONCLUSION WAS THAT THERE COULD NOT HAVE
BEEN SEXUAL INTERCOURSE BETWEEN NEANDERTHALIS AND CRO MAGNON
HOMO SAPIENS SAPIENS.
I don’t know – there are certainly more differences than
nineteen. It’s very difficult sequencing because most of the
samples are contaminated with modern DNA. So, it’s difficult to
sort out the Neanderthal sequences from the modern human. But
there are a few samples that are supposedly uncontaminated.
But DNA is not stable, either. Over time it changes.
So, the other problem you have is
determining which changes are real and which are things that
have happened to the DNA over time. So, the DNA degrades in such
a way that bases change. So, when we sequence them, we see a
different base there than was actually there at the time. And
there are ways to estimate that error rate based on other things
in the bone.
But you still have to apply the rate of change to what you are
seeing and come up with some conjecture of the number of errors,
or differences, that are there. So, I think it is still very
early on to be analyzing that data to make any statements
whatsoever about it.
IF THERE WERE NO SEXUAL CONNECTION BETWEEN THE NEANDERTHALIS
LINE AND HOMO SAPIENS SAPIENS THAT CAME LATER, WHERE DID CRO
MAGNON HOMO SAPIENS SAPIENS COME FROM?
Well, they didn’t have to breed together to diverge, right? I
mean they could be geographically isolated offshoot in
evolution, which evolved independently. I mean, if we all
evolved throughout time out of Africa, there could definitely be
groups that were geographically isolated and have evolved
BACK TO THE ORGELL/CRICK PANSPERMIA HYPOTHESIS, IF THERE WAS
MANIPULATION OF DNA IN ALREADY-EVOLVING PRIMATES ON THE PLANET,
THEN IT’S POSSIBLE THAT HOMO SAPIENS OR NEANDERTHALIS OR EVEN
HOMO ERECTUS COULD HAVE BEEN THE PRODUCT OF SOME KIND OF GENETIC
I don’t believe that. If you look at all over the planet, there
are species of birds, for example, that are clearly related, but
cannot inter-breed. How did they all become different? Well,
they became different because they were isolated in different
areas and they started to evolve and adapt to the local
environment, so the beak changed so some could eat certain
And then, as they changed and
evolved, the chromosomes changed enough that they could no
longer interbreed. But they are all very, very related and can
be connected back to some progenitor bird. So, the fact that
they are different doesn’t mean that anyone manipulated them,
they just changed over time.
No Way to Prove Genetic
of Already-Evolving Primates by E. T.s?
SO THE BOTTOM LINE TO ALL OF THIS IS: EVEN IF THERE WERE AN
EXTRATERRESTRIAL MANIPULATION OR SEEDING OF DNA ON THIS PLANET
OR OTHER PLANETS, OUR CURRENT LIFE FORM RIGHT NOW – HUMANS –
WOULD NEVER BE ABLE TO PROVE IT?
I would think probably that we could not prove it. It would be
very difficult for us to prove that. It’s very difficult to
prove anything in the past, right? All you can do is look at the
evidence and come up with a theory. But proof is something that
you can just come up with the facts based on the current data
and you can formulate a theory.
And a theory is something that’s not
just a wild story. It’s something that is sort of accepted to be
what happened in the past, or what will happen in the future,
based on what scientists believe. So, it’s sort of the accepted,
current knowledge. But to actually prove something is extremely
Surprisingly Few Genes Needed to
AN M.I.T. HEADLINE IN 2004 WAS ‘THE NUMBER OF GENES IN THE HUMAN
GENOME IS LOWER THAN PREVIOUSLY ESTIMATED’ – CONSIDERABLY LOWER.
COULD YOU ELABORATE AND EXPLAIN THIS?
When we started sequencing the genome, the prediction was that
there would be 100,000 human genes. That prediction was based
largely on the few genes that had been sequenced. Their size was
around 30,000 base pairs. Since the human genome was 3 billion
base pairs, just doing the math, it seemed that if the average
gene was 30,000 base pairs, then there would be 100,000 genes
(in a human). I think that is sort of a simplistic view of where
that 100,000 number came from.
Of the things that had been sequenced at the time, a worm was
being sequenced and it looked like 20,000 genes in it. So, it
seemed reasonable – maybe it was part of our arrogance – that we
thought there should be 100,000 human genes.
But in the end, when we sequenced the human genome, it turned
out to be – and it’s still a debatable point actually how many
genes there are (in humans) – but there are maybe something like
22,000 human genes. The difference is not the number of genes,
but the complexity of the genes that has more to do with the
complexity of the organism.
IF I UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU JUST SAID, YOU MEAN IF HUMANS HAVE
22,000 GENES AND OTHER CREATURES MIGHT HAVE 30,000 GENES OR
MORE, THEN OUR GENE SEQUENCING IS MORE COMPLEX?
In human genes, one gene tends to make multiple proteins,
whereas a lot of things like the worm it's one gene makes one
protein. Our human genes make at least two proteins on average.
Some genes make many, many proteins. It’s called ‘differential
splicing’ and it’s a way of mixing and matching parts within
that gene to make a different protein for a different function.
So human genes get more complexity out of the genes that we have
than something like a worm.
IS THERE OTHER EARTH LIFE THAT IS SIMILAR TO OUR GENE SEQUENCING
In complexity – yes. We have sequenced some of the primates such
as chimpanzee and macaque and they have very similar genomes to
our own - and almost any mammalian genome, including cows, which
have been sequenced. All of those genomes have roughly about the
same number of genes as humans.
I think the largest numbers of genes have been in plants
actually. Some plants have 40,000 genes and some of that is that
plants tend to be chemical factories. They produce a lot of
compounds to protect themselves from insects since they can’t
run away like we can. They are stuck in one spot and so they
have lot of chemical synthesis machinery. That might account for
a lot of the genes that they have.
WHICH IS CLOSEST OTHER EARTH LIFE TO HOMO SAPIENS?
Chimpanzee, but we haven’t finished sequencing all the other
primates yet, though.
Looking for Disease Causes in Genes
WHAT IS CURRENT FOCUS OF YOUR WORK RIGHT NOW?
Right now we are using the information we have to go in and
sequence genes within individuals looking for the cause of
disease – we’re looking for differences in the genes (compared),
which might then be related to the diseases that we’re studying.
COULD YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF SOMETHING WE WOULD ALL KNOW AND HOW
THIS WORK HAS APPLIED?
We have a number of projects going on: epilepsy, obesity, many
others. We’re looking at cancer as well. The idea is that we
pretty well know what a normal gene looks like by doing the
human sequencing, so we’re looking now for variations on those
genes which might be associated with disease.
IS THERE A PARTICULAR DISEASE LINK THAT YOU THINK IS ABSOLUTELY
FIRM THAT MIGHT BE A DISEASE WE WOULD BE SURPRISED ABOUT?
I’m always surprised. I’m surprised every day by things that we
see. I don’t know about surprises – what we’re finding, I think,
and it’s early days – but many of the diseases we’ve known about
in the past like cystic fibrosis – there was a very definite
change in the gene that we could associate with the disease.
Now, what we’re looking at are what
we call complex disorders where it may be subtle variations in a
number of genes, which all add up to give you the disease. In
the subtle variations, you may find that someone without the
disease have some of those. But having all of them together is
what gives the disease. So it can be very difficult to tease it
That’s why we are sequencing lots of diseases in a lot of people
looking for these associations where a change in this gene is
not enough to give you the disease, but a change in Gene 1 plus
the change in Gene 2 plus the change in Gene 3 all add up to
give you the disease.
I think the surprising thing is that what we are seeing is how
much variations there are in all the genes in all of us. But it
depends on how they mix and match whether you get heart disease