Stefan Linquist wins SSHRC Insight Grant | College of Arts

Stefan Linquist wins SSHRC Insight Grant

Posted on Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

Our Associate Professor Stefan Linquist is principal investigator on a new SSHRC Insight Grant. Congratulations, Stefan!

The use and abuse of function concepts in genomics

SSHRC Insight Grant: $85,279.

It might come as a surprise that only a small fraction of the DNA in our cells (less than 2%) encodes the various proteins that build our hair cells, bone cells, neurons, and all other human cell types. This raises the question of what, if anything, the remaining 98% is doing?

Scientists have long been at odds over how to understand the role of “junk” DNA. It seems that the more they learn about the composition of our genomes, the more rancorous this debate becomes. Some researchers propose that non-coding DNA is the by-product of parasitic activity at the genomic level. Others view it as performing some cryptic, but essential function for the organism. Yet others propose that the genome is actually a mini-ecosystem, where genetic “organisms” inhabit and modify DNA structure. Interestingly, all three positions point to the same types of evidence to support their models, showing that this debate is partly a question of interpretation.

In collaboration with Ryan Gregory (U of Guelph) and Ford Doolittle (Dalhousie), Stefan Linquist will attempt to advance this debate by drawing on concepts developed by philosophers—such as alternative definitions of biological function and the idea of multi-level evolution. Linquist will also investigate the factors that drive researchers to favour a particular interpretation.  Prima facie evidence suggests that large biomedical consortia (such as the Human Genome Project) assume that junk DNA is highly functional for the organism. This is in contrast to researchers operating with smaller budgets and who work within an evolutionary paradigm. The second group of scientists tend to favour the parasite model or the ecosystem perspective. This difference raises the question of whether the biases inherent in Big Science are perhaps impeding progress in our understanding of the human genome. Linquist and his collaborators hope to shed light on this issue.

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