Junk DNA might turn out to be vitally necessary to life

14 September 2012
ThoughtForTheDay 20200515 RabbiLordSacks mp3 image 1
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day, 14th September 2012

On Sunday night, Jews round the world will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when we commemorate the creation of the universe and ask God to write us in the book of life. I was thinking about this last week, reading about one of the most fascinating discoveries of recent times.

Twelve years ago scientists decoded the human genome. Many people at the time used Rosh Hashanah language. They said, we’ve learned how to read “the book of life.” But there was one astonishing finding. Only 2 per cent of the genome seemed to do anything. Only 2 per cent coded for proteins which is what DNA is supposed to do. The other ninety eight per cent seemed useless. It was given a name. Junk DNA.

Well it’s just emerged that it isn’t junk after all. After one of the biggest ever scientific experiments, involving 1,600 experiments, 450 scientists and thirty two different institutions, we now know that not only is it not junk. It’s absolutely crucial for life. This may be the beginning of a scientific revolution. Twelve years ago we discovered that instead of 100,000 genes as people expected, we have only around 20, 000, not much more than worms and fruit flies. But now we know that we have in every cell some four million switches that turn things on and off, producing Shakespeare and Ghandi and you and me instead of worms and flies. Genes, which we once thought were the whole story, turn out to be only a small part of it.

There are two approaches to religion and science. One says that religion explains whatever science doesn’t explain. What that means is that every advance for science is a retreat for religion with the result that they become antagonists, fighting one another, often in rather angry ways.

The other, which I and many others adopt, is exactly the opposite. Every advance for science is an advance for religion, increasing our wonder at the precisely tuned universe and the organised complexity of life. Every advance for science makes me repeat the words of Isaiah. Lift up high your eyes and see who created all these.

Last week’s discovery was a heaven sent tutorial in humility. Indeed humility, a religious virtue, is essential to science also – because what today you dismiss as 98 per cent junk might tomorrow turn out to be vitally necessary to life after all.

I wish you all Shana tovah, a good new year.