Does Evolutionary Bias Create Unhealthy Stereotypes about Pseudogenes?

By Fazale Rana – March 18, 2020

Truth be told, we all hold to certain stereotypes whether we want to admit it or not. Though unfair, more often than not, these stereotypes cause little real damage.

Yet, there are instances when stereotypes can be harmful—even deadly. As a case in point, researchers have shown that stereotyping disrupts the healthcare received by members of so-called disadvantaged groups, such as African Americans, Latinos, and the poor.1

Healthcare providers are frequently guilty of bias towards underprivileged people. Often, the stereotyping is unconscious and unintentional. Still, this bias compromises the medical care received by people in these ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

Underprivileged patients are also guilty of stereotyping. It is not uncommon for these patients to perceive themselves as the victims of prejudice, even when their healthcare providers are genuinely unbiased. As a result, these patients don’t trust healthcare workers and, consequently, withhold information that is vital for a proper diagnosis.

Fortunately, psychologists have developed best practices that can reduce stereotyping by both healthcare practitioners and patients. Hopefully, by implementing these practices, the impact of stereotyping on the quality of healthcare can be minimized over time.

Recently, a research team from Australia identified another form of stereotyping that holds the potential to negatively impact healthcare outcomes.2 In this case, the impact of this stereotyping isn’t limited to disadvantaged people; it affects all of us.

A Bias Against Pseudogenes

These researchers have uncovered a bias in the way life scientists view the human genome (and the genomes of other organisms). Too often they regard the human genome as a repository of useless, nonfunctional DNA that arises as a vestige of evolutionary history. Because of this view, life scientists and the biomedical research community eschew studying regions of the human genome they deem to be junk DNA. This posture is not unreasonable. It doesn’t make sense to invest precious scientific resources to study nonfunctional DNA.

Many life scientists are unaware of their bias. Unfortunately, this stereotyping hinders scientific advance by delaying discoveries that could be translated into the clinical setting. Quite often, supposed junk DNA has turned out to serve a vital purpose. Failure to recognize this function not only compromises our understanding of genome biology, but also hinders biomedical researchers from identifying defects in these genomic regions that contribute to genetic diseases and disorders.

As psychologists will point out, acknowledging bias is the first step to solving the problems that stereotyping causes. This is precisely what these researchers have done by publishing an article in Nature Review Genetics.3 The team focused on DNA sequence elements called pseudogenes. Traditionally, life scientists have viewed pseudogenes as the remnants of once functional genes. Biologists have identified three categories of pseudogenes: (1) unitary, (2) duplicated, and (3) processed.

Researchers categorize DNA sequences as pseudogenes based on structural features. Such features indicate to the investigators that these sequence elements were functional genes at one time in evolutionary history, but eventually lost function due to mutations or other biochemical processes, such as reverse transcription and DNA insertion. Once a DNA sequence is labeled a pseudogene, bias sets in and researchers just assume that it lacks function—not because it has been experimentally demonstrated to be nonfunctional, but because of the stereotyping that arises out of the evolutionary paradigm.

The authors of the piece acknowledge that “the annotation of genomics regions as pseudogenes constitutes an etymological signifier that an element has no function and is not a gene. As a result, pseudogene-annotated regions are largely excluded from functional screen and genomic analyses.”4 In other words, the “pseudogene” moniker biases researchers to such a degree that they ignore these sequence elements as they study genome structure and function without ever doing the hard, experimental work to determine whether it is actually nonfunctional.

This approach is clearly misguided and detracts from scientific discovery. As the authors admit, “However, with a growing number of instances of pseudogene-annotated regions later found to exhibit biological function, there is an emerging risk that these regions of the genome are prematurely dismissed as pseudogenic and therefore regarded as void of function.”5

Discovering Function Despite Bias

The harmful effects of this bias become evident as biomedical researchers unexpectedly stumble upon function for pseudogenes, time and time, again, not because of the evolutionary paradigm, but despite it. These authors point out that many processed pseudogenes are transcribed and, of those, many are translated to produce proteins. Many unitary and duplicated pseudogenes are also transcribed. Some are also translated into proteins, but a majority are not. Instead they play a role in gene regulation as described by the competitive endogenous RNA hypothesis.

Still, there are some pseudogenes that aren’t transcribed and, thus, could rightly be deemed nonfunctional. However, the researchers point out that the current experimental approaches for identifying transcribed regions are less than ideal. Many of these methods may fail to detect pseudogene transcripts. However, as the researchers point out, even if a pseudogene isn’t transcribed it still may serve a functional role (e.g., contributing to chromosome three-dimensional structure and stability).

This Nature article raises a number of questions and concerns for me as a biochemist:

  • How widespread is this bias?
  • If this type of stereotyping exists toward pseudogenes, does it exist for other classes of junk DNA?
  • How well do we really understand genome structure and function?
  • Do we have the wrong perspective on the genome, one that stultifies scientific advance?
  • Does this bias delay the understanding and alleviation of human health concerns?

Is the Evolutionary Paradigm the Wrong Framework to Study Genomes?

Based on this article, I think it is safe to conclude that we really don’t understand the molecular biology of genomes. We are living in the midst of a scientific revolution that is radically changing our view of genome structure and function. The architecture and operations of genomes appear to be far more elegant and sophisticated than anyone ever imagined—at least within the confines of the evolutionary paradigm.

This insight also leads me to question if the evolutionary paradigm is the proper framework for thinking about genome structure and function. From my perspective, treating biological systems as the Creator’s handiwork provides a superior approach to understanding the genome. A creation model approach promotes scientific advance, particularly when the rationale for the structure and function of a particular biological system is not apparent. This expectation forces researchers to keep an open mind and drives further study of seemingly nonfunctional, purposeless systems with the full anticipation that their functional roles will eventually be uncovered.

Over the last several years, I have raised concerns about the bias life scientists have harbored as they have worked to characterize the human genome (and genomes of other organisms). It is gratifying to me to see that there are life scientists who, though committed to the evolutionary paradigm, are beginning to recognize this bias as well.

The first step to addressing the problem of stereotyping—in any sector of society—is to acknowledge that it exists. Often, this step is the hardest one to take. The next step is to put in place structures to help overcome its harmful influence. Could it be that part of the solution to this instance of scientific stereotyping is to grant a creation model approach access to the scientific table?


Pseudogene Function

The Evolutionary Paradigm Hinders Scientific Advance

  1. For example, see Joshua Aronson et al., “Unhealthy Interactions: The Role of Stereotype Threat in Health Disparities,” American Journal of Public Health 103 (January 1, 2013): 50–56, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2012.300828.
  2. Seth W. Cheetham, Geoffrey J. Faulkner, and Marcel E. Dinger, “Overcoming Challenges and Dogmas to Understand the Functions of Pseudogenes,” Nature Reviews Genetics 21 (March 2020): 191–201, doi:10.1038/s41576-019-0196-1.
  3. Cheetham, Faulkner, and Dinger, 191–201.
  4. Cheetham, Faulkner, and Dinger, 191–201.
  5. Cheetham, Faulkner, and Dinger, 191–201.

Reprinted with permission by the author

Original article at:

The Endosymbiont Hypothesis: Things Aren’t What They Seem to Be



Sometimes, things just aren’t what they seem to be. For example, when it comes to the world of biology:

  • Fireflies are not flies; they are beetles
  • Prairie dogs are not dogs; they are rodents
  • Horned toads are not toads; they are lizards
  • Douglas firs are not firs; they are pines
  • Silkworms are not worms; they are caterpillars
  • Peanuts are not nuts; they are legumes
  • Koala bears are not bears; they are marsupials
  • Guinea pigs are not from Guinea and they are not pigs; they are rodents from South America
  • Banana trees are not trees; they are herbs
  • Cucumbers are not vegetables; they are fruit
  • Mexican jumping beans are not beans; they are seeds with a larva inside

And . . . mitochondria are not alphaproteobacteria. In fact, evolutionary biologists don’t know what they are—at least, if recent work by researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden is to be taken seriously.1

As silly as this list may be, evolutionary biologists are not amused by this latest insight about the identity of mitochondria. Uncertainty about the evolutionary origin of mitochondria removes from the table one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis.

A cornerstone idea within the modern evolutionary framework, biology textbooks often present the endosymbiont hypothesis as a well-evidenced, well-established evolutionary explanation for the origin of complex cells (eukaryotic cells). Yet, confusion and uncertainty surround this idea, as this latest discovery attests. To put it another way: when it comes to the evolutionary explanation for the origin of complex cells in biology textbooks, things aren’t what they seem.

The Endosymbiont Hypothesis

Most evolutionary biologists believe that the endosymbiont hypothesis is the best explanation for one of the key transitions in life’s history—namely, the origin of complex cells from bacteria and archaea. Building on the ideas of Russian botanist Konstantin Mereschkowski, Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) advanced the endosymbiont hypothesis to explain the origin of eukaryotic cells in the 1960s.

Since that time, Margulis’s ideas on the origin of complex cells have become an integral part of the evolutionary paradigm. Many life scientists find the evidence for this hypothesis compelling; consequently, they view it as providing broad support for an evolutionary explanation for the history and design of life.

According to this hypothesis, complex cells originated when symbiotic relationships formed among single-celled microbes after free-living bacterial and/or archaeal cells were engulfed by a “host” microbe. (Ingested cells that take up permanent residence within other cells are referred to as endosymbionts.)


The Evolution of Eukaryotic Cells According to the Endosymbiont Hypothesis

Image source: Wikipedia

Presumably, organelles such as mitochondria were once endosymbionts. Evolutionary biologists believe that once taken inside the host cell, the endosymbionts took up permanent residence, with the endosymbiont growing and dividing inside the host. Over time, endosymbionts and hosts became mutually interdependent, with the endosymbionts providing a metabolic benefit for the host cell. The endosymbionts gradually evolved into organelles through a process referred to as genome reduction. This reduction resulted when genes from endosymbionts’ genomes were transferred into the genome of the host organism. Eventually, the host cell evolved machinery to produce proteins needed by the former endosymbiont and processes to transport those proteins into the organelle’s interior.

Evidence for the Endosymbiont Hypothesis

The morphological similarity between organelles and bacteria serve as one line of evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis. For example, mitochondria are about the same size and shape as a typical bacterium and they have a double membrane structure like the gram-negative cells. These organelles also divide in a way that is reminiscent of bacterial cells.

Biochemical evidence also seems to support the endosymbiont hypothesis. Evolutionary biologists view the presence of the diminutive mitochondrial genome as a vestige of this organelle’s evolutionary history. Additionally, biologists also take the biochemical similarities between mitochondrial and bacterial genomes as further evidence for the evolutionary origin of these organelles.

The presence of the unique lipid cardiolipin in the mitochondrial inner membrane also serves as evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis. Cardiolipin is an important lipid component of bacterial inner membranes. Yet, it is not found in the membranes of eukaryotic cells—except for the inner membranes of mitochondria. In fact, biochemists consider it a signature lipid for mitochondria and a vestige of this organelle’s evolutionary history.

But, as compelling as these observations may be, for many evolutionary biologists phylogenetic analysis provides the most convincing evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis. Evolutionary trees built from the DNA sequences of mitochondria, bacteria, and archaea place these organelles among a group of microbes called alphaproteobacteria. And, for many (but not all) evolutionary trees, mitochondria cluster with the bacteria, Rickettsiales.For evolutionary biologists, these results mean that the endosymbionts that eventually became the first mitochondria were alphaproteobacteria. If mitochondria were notevolutionarily derived from alphaproteobacteria, why would the DNA sequences of these organelles group with these bacteria in evolutionary trees?

But . . . Mitochondria Are Not Alphaproteobacteria

Even though evolutionary biologists seem certain about the phylogenetic positioning of mitochondria among the alphaproteobacteria, there has been an ongoing dispute as to the precise positioning of mitochondria in evolutionary trees, specifically whether or not mitochondria group with Rickettsiales. Looking to bring an end to this dispute, the Uppsula University research team developed a more comprehensive data set to build their evolutionary trees, with the hope that they could more precisely locate mitochondria among alphaproteobacteria. The researchers point out that the alphaproteobacterial genomes used to construct evolutionary trees stem from microbes found in clinical and agricultural settings, which is a small sampling of the alphaproteobacteria found in nature. Researchers knew this was a limitation, but, up to this point, this was the only DNA sequence data available to them.

To avoid the bias that arises from this limited data set, the researchers screened databases of DNA sequences collected from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans for undiscovered alphaproteobacteria. They uncovered twelve new groups of alphaproteobacteria. In turn, they included these new genome sequences along with DNA sequences from previously known alphaproteobacterial genomes to build a new set of evolutionary trees. To their surprise, their analysis indicates that mitochondria are not alphaproteobacteria.

Instead, it looks like mitochondria belong to a side branch that separated from the evolutionary tree before alphaproteobacteria emerged. Adding to their surprise, the research team was unable to identify any bacterial species alive today that would group with mitochondria.

To put it another way: the latest study indicates that evolutionary biologists have no candidate for the evolutionary ancestor of mitochondria.

Does the Endosymbiont Hypothesis Successfully Account for the Origin of Mitochondria?

Evolutionary biologists suggest that there’s compelling evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis. But when researchers attempt to delineate the details of this presumed evolutionary transition, such as the identity of the original endosymbiont, it becomes readily apparent that biologists lack a genuine explanation for the origin of mitochondria and, in a broader context, the origin of eukaryotic cells.

As I have written previously, the problems with the endosymbiont hypothesis are not limited to the identity of the evolutionary ancestor of mitochondria. They are far more pervasive, confounding each evolutionary step that life scientists envision to be part of the emergence of complex cells. (For more examples, see the Resources section.)

When it comes to the endosymbiont hypothesis, things are not what they seem to be. If mitochondria are not alphaproteobacteria, and if evolutionary biologists have no candidate for their evolutionary ancestor, could it be possible that they are the handiwork of the Creator?



  1. Joran Martijn et al., “Deep Mitochondrial Origin Outside the Sampled Alphaproteobacteria,” Nature 557 (May 3, 2018): 101–5, doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0059-5.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at: