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Teaching Our Future Doctors False Science

When DNA was discovered in 1953, its discoverers called it the “secret of life”. DNA instructs each cell in our bodies what to do and when to do it. DNA is the recipe to every living organism on planet Earth. Delving into DNA has revealed an enormous amount of information on humans and how we work.

Any young aspiring doctor spends months, possibly years learning about DNA and everything it does. DNA is covered in nearly any class relating to living things: biology, organic chemistry, neuroscience–classes that an aspiring doctor takes. Many of America’s best aspiring doctors are going above and beyond (as we would hope they would) and taking Advanced Placement level classes. These classes have nation-wide standards, and at the end of the course, the students take a nationally administered Advanced Placement test. Nearly 175,000 students took the AP Biology exam in 2010. Based on the past couple of years, I’d hazard a guess that about 200,000 hardworking students will take the AP Biology exam at the end of this year.

For the last four decades, scientists have thought a vast majority of DNA was junk–95% or more. This DNA has no function. When the DNA is “read” and used as instructions, this junk DNA gets edited out and only the 5% or less actually is used. That was how it worked.

Until this month. Over 400 scientists working on the ENCODE project for the last five years have discovered that over 80% of DNA has a specific biological function. At least 4 million “switches” that are vital to cell function are encoded throughout much of which was previously considered “junk” DNA. This amazing discovery will have far reaching impacts throughout scientific research, and of course, how DNA is being taught in our schools.

Unfortunately, the AP Biology test has already been finalized for this year. Even thought this huge discovery is coming out at the very beginning of the school year, 200,000 students will be forced to learn outdated, false information.

If this discovery had been published a few months before the exam, I would understand not changing the exam. The students would have learned about junk DNA already anyway.

But 7 months in advance? Surely in 7 months they can change a few questions on the exam and tell teachers that DNA isn’t mostly junk anymore. In fact, most teachers have probably already heard of this. All they have to do is change the questions. They have 7 months. But 200,000 of our brightest students will study non-existent junk DNA this year.

I hope you young aspiring doctors are following this discovery. Just remember that science is always changing.


The ENCODE project was published in over 30 different papers. Four hundred scientists can’t fit all their data into just one paper. You can check it out at http://www.encodeproject.org/ENCODE/


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