"Nobody's really known what junk DNA does or doesn't do," Albert told LiveScience.
But in recent years, researchers have debated whether "junk" might be a misnomer and if this mysterious DNA might play some role. A massive project called ENCODE, which aimed to uncover the role of the 3.3 billion base pairs, or letters of DNA, in the human genome that don't code for proteins, found that in test tubes, about 80 percent of the genome seemed to have some biological activity, such as affecting whether genes turn on. Whether that translated to any useful or necessary function for humans, however, wasn't resolved.
Albert and his colleagues sequenced the genome of the carnivorous bladderwort plant, Utricularia gibba, which lives in wet soil or fresh water throughout the world and sucks swimming microorganisms into its tiny, 1-milimeter-long bladders.
The genome had just 80 million base pairs. Compared with most other plant species, that genome was positively tiny, Albert said. The lily genome, for instance, can have 40 billion base pairs.