Whiskey Tango Foxtrot…

Blog entry

Tiggywinkle. Prospero. Decapentaplegia. Mothers Against Decapentaplegia. Lunatic Fringe. One-Eyed Pinhead. Sonic Hedgehog. Half-Baked. Tribbles…….I could go on: Echidna. Dumpy. Half-Pint. Fushi Terazu. I’m Not Dead Yet.….The list is extensive.
What do all of these words have in common? Well, they are all names of genes discovered by scientists who, as far as I can tell, are pretty good scientists….Super smart, even.  They are very real genes and some of them have very real implications to human health. Sonic Hedgehog, for example is known to be misexpressed in people with basal cell carcinoma, polydactyly, or a severe condition known as holoprosencephaly.  I would imagine the next question you might have is “How do these names come about?” I’m glad you asked!

When someone discovers a gene, he or she possesses the right to name it. And as you can see, these privileges may very well be the highlight of someone’s career. Better make it memorable, right? Exactly. People who name genes try to make the name something that will stick, something memorable…..and rightly so.  With so many genes out there, it’s a nice convenience to have names that are easily recognizable.  While these may sound whimsical and even a bit odd (a la` “Lunatic Fringe”) they certainly serve a purpose for those of us who may not have any windows in our labs, and therefore, limited contact to the outside world. Think about it: when you’re trying to find a mechanism for the complete lack of a body part on your fruitflies, would your brain have an easier time remembering it may be a mutation in the  “LFNG O-fucosylpeptide 3-beta-N-acetylglucosaminyltransferase” gene, or Lunatic Fringe?

I’ve learned over the years that the names we pick for our genes give the world a small window into our soul. For example, one may not be surprised that scientists read a lot, and may have read a lot as children: Tiggywinkle was named after a Beatrice Potter character (named by Philip Beachy at Stanford),  Miranda and Prospero were named after Shakespeare’s famous duo (named by Chris Doe at University of Oregon). Tribbles was named by some trekkies in Germany (Thomas Seher and Maria Leptin).

Sometimes they’re even named by committee (and by “committee” I mean the P.I.  gets to name it and the lab grunt who found it gets to make believe he/she had a say in it). This particular blogger discovered a rat mutation in which the little guys and gals looked like little pink Yodas and have almost no hair. After my P.I. physically prevented me from feeding the mutant rat to my snake, I realized we were on to something.   Once we saw that it didn’t map to any known hypotrichotic loci, we realized we had a new gene….Ok I was a college sophomore and I needed to be told that we had a new gene. So the naming debacle began. Suffice it to say that I lost the contest (I had “Birthday Suit” and “Sunburnt” because they stayed pink throughout their adulthood). The PI’s wife even threw a name into the ring: “Buff.”  But in the end, these rats became known as the Shorn rats, gene code “Shn.” Alas, my gene naming chance had flown out the window, with my first co-authored paper.

What’s the moral of this week’s story? Well, I’m not sure but I guess I could say “choose your gene names wisely or you will get shot down by your peers…..Like the folks who tried to name a Drosophila gene “Fruity” or the folks who first-hand experienced a thorough “kiboshing” when they tried to name their gene “Cheap Date.”  The folks who discovered that a certain mutation had male fruitflies courting and following other males around, got the smackdown by the Gene police (and, yes, I agree that the name “fruity” has no place in science with respect to these flies) who determined that “fruity” was an insult. The solution? That mutation is now called “Fruitless” since, you guessed it, no progeny result from these fruitfly meetings. As far as “Cheap Date”  is concerned, all I can tell you is that the Gene Police referenced above (Human Genome Organization Gene Nomenclature Committee) shot it down.  Why? That’s for you to find out next week, dear reader!