The naming of the genes
We’re publishing the shortlisted entries to the 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. Today, Audrey Nailor on where scientists get their wonderful names for things.
Cheap Date. ShavenBaby. Tinman. Groucho Marx. Lunatic Fringe. Drop Dead. I’m Not Dead Yet. Methuselah.
Ether a-go-go. Hedgehog. Scott of the Antarctic.
In Christian myth, Adam names the animals – or at least “the fowl of the air and the beasts of the field,” presumably leaving the more problematic sea mammals, dinosaurs and platypuses for Eve. In the modern world, it is scientists who hold the honour of naming their own discoveries, and since scientists are mere mortals, the results are both earthy and dazzling. The arresting phrases above sound like found poetry, but each one represents hours of intense labor and dedication, a multitude of molecular pathways and mysteries yet undiscovered, a sort of universe in miniature. They are the names of genes that were first discovered in the fruit fly.
The names make more sense when you look at them through the lens of Scientist Humour. Many of them are deliberately clever references to literature or popular culture abound in gene-naming traditions. So do bad puns and inside jokes. Offbeat names serve their intended purpose of being funny and memorable, the sort of interesting facts that you can file away for future conversations. Mutations in the Cheap Date gene make fruit flies more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. Flies that carry a mutation for I’m Not Dead Yet or Methuselah live much longer lives than flies with Drop Dead. Groucho Marx mutants have more facial bristles than usual. And, yes, fruit flies that are Tinman mutants fail to develop a heart.
While fruit fly geneticists are renowned for their tradition of quirky gene names, the trend extends to other organisms as well. The human equivalent of the Hedgehog gene was duly named Sonic Hedgehog (Scientist Humor rarely pretends to be mature). Sometimes nature itself seems to take a hand in the joke. A plant called Arabidopsis has a gene named Superman, which causes the flower to develop extra sexual organs. A similar gene was dubbed Clark Kent… and was later discovered to be a variant of Superman.
The heyday of whimsical genes peaked in the 1990s, and it has since faltered. Humans and fruit flies share many genes, and the appropriately labelled Human Genome Organization Gene Nomenclature Committee felt that some names were inappropriate. What doctor, they argued, would feel comfortable telling parents that their son had a fatal mutation of the Sonic Hedgehog gene?
It’s a serious question. In fruit flies, the Hedgehog gene controls body segmentation during development, with mutant fly larvae appearing chubby, rounded and bristly. You can see exactly how the researchers named it. But in humans, we’ve learned that Sonic Hedgehog mutations are implicated in a host of wide-ranging effects and mutations, from mental retardation to cancer to cleft palates and two-faced kittens. Pairing such conditions with the name of a video game character seems glib, frivolous, disrespectful. Yet scientists need to be able to remember the names of genes that relate to their own work, and suggested replacement names, such as MCOPCB5, lack connection and panache. Researchers argued passionately that odd gene names celebrate science’s culture, humor and individuality, but the changes were made anyway; Sonic Hedgehog is now referred to in polite circles as SHH.
Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of whimsy and warped humour in scientific nomenclature. The binomial classification system, in which every organism receives its double-barrelled ‘Latin name,’ is full of personal touches. They range the gamut from vulgar (the Priapulid worms are named after the Greek god of permanent erections) to the charming (the pterosaur Arthurdactylus conandoylensis honours the creator of Sherlock Holmes and “The Lost World”). There is a moth called Carmenelectra shechisme (pronounced “she kiss me”), but it’s a very old joke – a Victorian naturalist immortalised his sexual conquests in the names of insects like Polychisme, Marichisme and Peggichisme.
Biologists don’t get all the fun: physicists classified individual quarks (the components of atoms) into the “flavours” of up, down, strange, charmed, truth and beauty. “Quark” itself is a made-up word stolen from James Joyce, although, confusingly, it is also a type of cheese… At any rate, there are as many ways to make one’s mark on the dictionary as there are new things to discover.
The existence, and the extent, of these aspects of science culture still surprises non-scientists, whose pop-culture perception of researchers is that of humourless oddballs in white coats. But there’s more to the science of odd names than cheap humour and memorability. In direct opposition to Adam’s naming of the animals – asserting humanity’s dominion over the natural world – these odd moments of whimsy in the vast sea of scientific research assert humour and humanity in the face of the universe, which is something worth noting.
This is an edited version of Audrey’s original essay. Views expressed are the author’s own.
Over the next couple of months, we’re publishing the shortlisted essays from the 2012 competition. Read all, and the 2011 essays, in our archive.