See also Adaptive evolution and non-coding regions.
NYTimes: Is Most of Our DNA Garbage?
... Rinn studies RNA, but not the RNA that our cells use as a template for making proteins. Scientists have long known that the human genome contains some genes for other types of RNA: strands of bases that carry out other jobs in the cell, like helping to weld together the building blocks of proteins. In the early 2000s, Rinn and other scientists discovered that human cells were reading thousands of segments of their DNA, not just the coding parts, and producing RNA molecules in the process. They wondered whether these RNA molecules could be serving some vital function.
... In December 2013, Rinn and his colleagues published the first results of their search: three potential new genes for RNA that appear to be essential for a mouse’s survival. To investigate each potential gene, the scientists removed one of the two copies in mice. When the mice mated, some of their embryos ended up with two copies of the gene, some with one and some with none. If these mice lacked any of these three pieces of DNA, they died in utero or shortly after birth. “You take away a piece of junk DNA, and the mouse dies,” Rinn said. “If you can come up with a criticism of that, go ahead. But I’m pretty satisfied. I’ve found a new piece of the genome that’s required for life.”
... To some biologists, discoveries like Rinn’s hint at a hidden treasure house in our genome. Because a few of these RNA molecules have turned out to be so crucial, they think, the rest of the noncoding genome must be crammed with riches. But to Gregory and others, that is a blinkered optimism worthy of Dr. Pangloss. They, by contrast, are deeply pessimistic about where this research will lead. Most of the RNA molecules that our cells make will probably not turn out to perform the sort of essential functions that hotair and firre do. Instead, they are nothing more than what happens when RNA-making proteins bump into junk DNA from time to time.
... One news release from an N.I.H. project declared, “Much of what has been called ‘junk DNA’ in the human genome is actually a massive control panel with millions of switches regulating the activity of our genes.” Researchers like Gregory consider this sort of rhetoric to be leaping far beyond the actual evidence.
... Over millions of years, essential genes haven’t changed very much, while junk DNA has picked up many harmless mutations. Scientists at the University of Oxford have measured evolutionary change over the past 100 million years at every spot in the human genome. “I can today say, hand on my heart, that 8 percent, plus or minus 1 percent, is what I would consider functional,” Chris Ponting, an author of the study, says. And the other 92 percent? “It doesn’t seem to matter that much,” he says. ...