James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

August 27, 2010

Tearing down a typical “genome sequenced” news story.

Filed under: Uncategorized — James @ 11:28 am

What’s wrong with this Associated Press story on the wheat genome? Everything. And that’s not even getting into the fact they don’t mention that the genome isn’t even assembled yet. But I have to let them off the hook on that one, since none of the coverage seems to be mentioning that fact.


University of Liverpool scientist Neil Hall, whose team cracked the code…

Cracked the code? What code? The genetic code? That’s been cracked for decades. You can look it up on wikipedia. Sequencing a genome isn’t cracking a code, it’s photocopying the instruction manual (admittedly a indescribably vast and confusing instruction manual).

Sequencing an organism’s genome, gives unparalleled insight into how it is formed, develops and dies. [emphasis mine]

How does sequencing a genome give any insight into how a living thing dies? Our genomes don’t have like death genes inserted into them. The whole point of a genome, is that in contains the best methods billions of years of evolution have developed to keep a living thing alive and reproducing as long as possible. This is biology, so there are always exceptions to any rule, but in general genomes are about staying alive and passing on parts of that genome to the next generation, while avoiding death whenever possible.

One reason for the outsize genome is that strains such as the Chinese spring wheat analyzed by Hall’s team carry six copies of the same gene (most creatures carry two.) Another is that wheat has a tangled ancestry, tracing its descent from three different species of wild grass.

Ok, this one isn’t half right, it’s twice right. This is just saying the same thing two different ways and called it two reasons. The cells of bread wheats do carry six copies of many genes, two copies from each of those three wild grasses the article immediately goes on to mention wheat is descended from.

Although the code may yet see use by genetic engineers hoping to craft artificial strains of wheat ….

How exactly? I’m really not sure how having a complete genome makes genetic engineering any easier. And since the story doesn’t go into any more detail on this point, I assume it was added just  because when journalists think exciting stories about plant genetics they think anti-GMO protests.

Until now, breeders seeking to combine the best traits of two strains of wheat would cross the pair, grow the hybrid crop and hope for the best.

Really? That’s wheat breeders have been doing up till now? Yes, I get that the point being made is that sequenced wheat genome makes marker assisted breeding a lot more powerful. And I’m sure that’s the point Neil Hall was making about speeding up the speed of wheat breeding. It’s be a very good and important point but this article makes it sound like up until now wheat breeders haven’t had any methods at their disposable besides randomly mating plants and praying for the best.

“We have to be very careful about saying that science will feed the world,” he said.

Well yes. Because it’s not like science has made any contribution to feeding the world so far… oh wait. But once more, I suppose this is an attempt to inject “exciting controversy” into what may have been seen as a “scientists learn more stuff” article.

Now this isn’t a personal attack on the person who wrote this article. Rather I’m trying to point out the very real problems of having the reports describing the advances of science to the general public written by people who don’t have any experience with the science they’re writing about. Yes I know all the stories about how scientists are horrible at communicating their research to a general audience, but the current solution is. not. working.


  1. […] and the Giant Corn gives you the straight dope on the wheat genome … so we don’t have to. Thanks. Cancel […]

    Pingback by Nibbles: Irish Seedsavers, Australia, Trees, Wheat genome — August 29, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

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