I recently took part in the ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here!’ outreach event. As soon as the school children found out I was a developmental geneticist and worked out what I did, one question I was repeatedly asked was: “what’s your favourite gene and why?” so for a bit of fun, I thought I’d share my thoughts and see what everyone else’s are too.
Now, I could have gone into detail about a gene of utmost importance in my work or one we literally couldn’t live without (although picking either of those would be tricky as that hardly narrows the list down). However, my first thought when picking my ‘favourite gene’ is always listing the funny-named ones that stuck out from my university lectures. That’s not to say these genes don’t also fit into the important and essential-to-life categories, but they have that added ‘pazzaz’ of an ear-catching name that would wake you from your university slumber, thinking “did he actually just say what I think he said…?”. So here is my shortlist, the top 5 genes based almost entirely on their names:
Tinman is an absolute gem in the history of creative gene naming. As with all the best gene names, tinman is named after the phenotype seen in Drosophilia when it is suppressed. In case you haven’t guessed, mutating tinman in Drosophilia embryos results in flies without a heart, despite the rest of the embryo continuing to develop. The vertebrate relatives of this gene have been named under a much less creative process with NK2 homeobox genes making up the homologous family. Just in case the origin of the name is still unclear, think back to the magical land of Oz, where Dorothy meets the tinman whose only wish is to have a heart. A sweet tale; however, while the tinman in The Wizard of Oz was always sentimental anyway, tinman mutant Drosophilia don’t have the advantages of a fairytale ending…
4. Swiss cheese
You may find a theme with these genes as yet another gene with a brilliant name comes from the phenotypic description in flies. Think about the classic cartoon cheese and you’ve got a fairly good description of the adult fly brain seen in Drosophilia with a faulty version of the gene: full of holes. To be more precise, the swiss cheese mutant results in brain degeneration through apoptosis spreading from the CNS. Notably, the swiss cheese gene paved the way for the blue cheese gene, another gene which, when mutated, affects the fly brain in a way that may resemble the mouldy, marbled appearance of blue cheeses.
This gene has made the cut through its clever acronym name. INDY simply stands for ‘I’m not dead yet!’. In addition, the reference to the ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ scene where a corpse being collected shouts “I’m not dead yet!” means this gene gets a strong haul of bonus points! This gene is shown to greatly extend the lifespan of fruit flies when mutated, so I guess the name makes sense as well. INDY is a nice example of scientists trying to hide jokes in their work; as of course we are a hilarious bunch of people.
2. Clark kent, superman and kryptonite (I know that’s cheating a bit!)
Finally stepping outside the realms of fruit flies, Arabidopsis thaliana has a lovely offering in a trio of genes that are named together. The clark kent and superman mutant genes make these plants extra macho – increasing the number of stamens found on their flowers. Superman mutants have an even greater increase than clark kent but if the kryptonite gene gains a mutation… uh oh! The mutation in the kryptonite gene causes both the clark kent and superman genes not to be expressed and makes the plant impotent. I think the naming of these genes greatly reflects the link many scientists share to the characters on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and their passion for comic books!
1. Sonic hedgehog
Sonic hedgehog is possibly the most famous funny gene name and a personal favourite for sentimental reasons as well as the obvious brilliance of its name. Often shortened to SHH (although who would miss an opportunity to say ‘sonic hedgehog’ in full?), this gene is part of a gene family of hedgehogs with other mammalian relatives named desert hedgehog and indian hedgehog. I can vividly remember the development lecture I was sitting in when sonic hedgehog was first mentioned and how it took us all a good half an hour before someone bravely put their hand up to say what we were all thinking: “I’m sorry, are you actually saying this gene is named after a blue, speedy, cartoon hedgehog?!”. Well to put it simply, yes it is. Sonic hedgehog is heavily involved in vertebrate development and in flies the hedgehog mutant phenotype covers the surface of the Drosophilia in tiny pointy projections – similar to a hedgehog! In Zebrafish, hedgehog genes are also named tiggywinkle hedgehog and echidna hedgehog (although the latter is no longer commonly used) making full use of the creative possibilities stemming from naming a gene family ‘hedgehogs’.
The issue of gene naming has however come up in the news, and public opinion is divided. Whilst some of these creative gene names are amusing, memorable and sometimes quite clever, we have to remember that for every gene there is the potential for it to be implicated in a real disease or disorder. That means that somewhere, someone could be told that their child will not survive into adulthood because of mutations in their sonic hedgehog gene. I wouldn’t want to be the bearer of that bad news, let alone have to stand there and use a gene name like that in the explanation. Phenotypic description gene names have been useful in the past, especially as we began our exploration and discovery of genes. However, in a world now dominated by computers and bioinformatics, a more standard method for naming genes has to be implemented. Hence why many mammalian genes (whose functions were discovered after the original Drosophilia outbursts) are named based on structure and function, an attempt at moving gene naming into the same realms as taxonomy.
There are still plenty of genes around with somewhat hysterical names. Thankfully we now have alternatives for most, if not all, of these options, meaning the ‘in-jokes’ of science can be put in the past when necessary! For now though, peruse the options out there and be prepared for the inevitable question, ‘what’s your favourite gene…?’
Notable others (to google in your own free time!):
– Barbie and Ken
– Grim reaper
– Rolling stones
– Van Gogh
– Cheap date
– Lava lamp
– One-eyed pinhead
– Half stoned
– Lunatic fringe, Radical fringe, Maniac fringe