Naming Genes Unlike Named Reactions

Our best wishes to all of you in the Northeast getting ready for Hurricane Sandy. I understand that even DC is closed today. So if you still have power at home, let me share a bit of levity with you.

Meghan Radford, science writer and NC State graduate student in zoology. Credit: Meghan Radford.

Over the weekend I learned that my science writing student, Meghan Radford (@meradfor), had a clever piece published at mental_floss, the magazine and website, "where knowledge junkies get their fix." Megan's article entitled, "18 Gene Names that Cover the Gamut, From Movies to Pop Culture to Cartoons," illustrates the comical yet discordant and unscientific process behind naming genes. Her article reminded me of C&EN's Carmen Drahl when she wrote about named reactions in both the magazine (C&EN, 17 May 2010) and her Newscripts blog here at CENtral Science. I'm not familiar with any genes that are named after the person who discovered them but, as Radford points out, a great many have been given interesting colloquial names. International gene nomenclature organizations exist but the standardized rules of these committees still make refer to the less formal names. For example, the human "sonic hedgehog" gene is SHH. The name of the original Drosophila hedgehog gene, hh, made functional sense as described by Nobel laureate, Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: fruit fly embryos with mutated hh expressed pointy extrusions called denticles and resembled hedgehogs. The mammalian homologue, Sonic was named after the Sega video game character. My favorite from Radford's list is one I hadn't known: INDY, for "I'm not dead yet."
Beyond this laboratory levity is a very serious issue for clinicians. From a 2006 New York Times article by John Schwartz:
A gene with a funny name may be linked to a medical condition that can be heartbreaking. The human variant of the fruit fly’s “hedgehog” gene, known as “sonic hedgehog” after the video-game character, has been linked to a condition known as Holoprosencephaly, which can result in severe brain, skull and facial defects. “It’s a cute name when you have stupid flies and you call it a ‘turnip,’ ” Dr. Doe said. “When it’s linked to development in humans, it’s not so cute any more.”
But today, I take time to be proud of my student for pitching a story to mental_floss and getting published. You can also read more formal writing by Meghan Radford at her blog, Neural Expression. Source: Radford, Meghan. 18 Gene Names that Cover the Gamut, From Movies to Pop Culture to Cartoons., 27 October 2012.  

Author: David Kroll

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