Funny gene names

Do you suppose, if your house was knocked over by Hurricane Fifi, that you might feel more slighted than if the same damage had been done by a storm with a more muscular name? Generals have long understood the value of giving their military operations intimidating names like Rolling Thunder and Urgent Fury. If you have a rare disease, it can be a source of perverse comfort to know that it is named after a pair of stern and bespectacled Old World doctors like Creutzfeldt and Jakob or Kugelberger and Welander.

But geneticists and molecular biologists have a couple of strikes against them when it comes to naming genes. First of all, they tend to name genes for what happens when the gene doesn’t work, which ends up making a critical functionality sound like a problem. Thus eyeless helps make eyes. The other problem is that it never occurred to them that the silly inside-joke names they gave to their fruitfly genes would have such straightforward parallels in humans. As it says in the NY Times article ‘Sonic Hedgehog’ Sounded Funny, at First:

It’s a cute name when you have stupid flies and you call it a ‘turnip.’ … When it’s linked to development in humans, it’s not so cute any more.

I came across a link to the Times article because of an entertaining blog post from the bioinformaticist Nick Saunders: What’s in a (gene) name? . You never know when a name is going to matter.

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