Scientist Humor: Funny Gene Names

After the research-heavy posts of the last few weeks, I thought it would be fun to do a less Scicrazy definition 1 and more definition 6 type of post. Enjoy!

Human genes tend to follow a strict “license plate” nomenclature: letters and numbers. This helps ensure consistency and organization, but it also serves the purpose of preventing scenarios in which doctors have to tell patients they have a mutation in their fear of intimacy gene, for example. Of course, fly physicians are not so fortunate. It’s something of a tradition for Drosophila genes to be named after the mutant phenotype–in other words, named for the main characteristics of a fly lacking a functional copy of that gene. That’s why you get genes like tinman (mutant doesn’t develop a heart), casanova (is born with two hearts), ken and barbie (mutant improperly develops genitals–male and female genitalia often remain inside the body). I’m a particular fan of the indy gene, where mutants have drastically lengthened lifespans. It’s an acronym for “I’m not dead yet,” referring to that one scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There’s a whole set of genes called the “Halloween Genes,” which are essential for proper exoskeleton development. These include spookspookierphantomdisembodied, and shadow, among others. Mental Floss did a great piece on 18 famous gene names and their etymology, not limited to flies (a few they list are spock, Callipyge (apparently Greek for “beautiful buttocks”), and my other favorite, cheap date).

Even though scientists have recognized the need for a more professional naming system in mammals, sometimes punny genes still slip through. For example, a gene that causes mammals to develop extras nipples is called Scaramanga, after the James Bond villain known as “the man with the golden gun” [and a third nipple]. In 2005, UK scientists discovered that this gene can also “trigger” the development of breasts, making it a new target of study for breast cancer research. A smart aleck article breaking this news was titled, “Scientists discover scaramanga gene’s bond with breast cancer.” Heh heh, “bond.” I’m honestly really surprised that this gene’s name hasn’t been changed yet.

More frequently, scientists get around this usually strict professionalism in human gene nomenclature by giving a pair of genes a hidden meaning. One good example of this are the AHR (aryl hydrocarbon receptor) and ARNT (AHR nuclear translocator) genes. A 2012 paper called “High-resolution genome-wide mapping of AHR and ARNT binding sites” makes me think that if the researchers could have, they would rather have titled it something like, “Where AHR and ARNT are and aren’t bound.”

The initial inspiration behind this blog post came while I was doing literature review on an imprinted gene locus that I’m studying right now in mice. One of the genes at this locus is called Meg3–pretty straight-forward, the acronym makes sense (maternally expressed gene #3), and not something that an immature uncle would chuckle at while the doctor explains your copy isn’t working right. But then I found another gene just downstream of Meg3 called RNA Imprinted and Accumulated in Nucleus…or “Rian.” Meg3 and Rian, in that order. I wonder if Meg Ryan knows about this?

But back to Drosophila. While many names are well-known, there are a lot of hidden gems. By scrolling through my Drosophila genome annotation, I found several I hadn’t heard of before but love. Here are a five of my favorite not-as-famous-but-still-oh-so-clever Drosophila gene names (unless otherwise stated, descriptions are taken from The Interactive Fly website):

  • nervous wreck: related to excessive growth of larval neuromuscular junctions. So literally the mutant’s nerves are a wreck.
  • happyhour: mutations in this gene allow flies to drink a lot more alcohol than wild-type controls before succumbing to its sedating effects (Corl et al., 2009). This is the opposite of what a mutation in cheap date does.
  • slimfast: its downregulation, specifically within the fat body, causes a global growth defect similar to that seen in Drosophila raised under poor nutritional conditions. 
  • Thor: expression of a certain transcript from this gene increases during infection, so it was named after the Nordic demi-god in charge of protecting mankind (Rodriguez et al., 1996).
  • scarface: mutants have what appears to be “scarring” around the mouthparts (Bonin and Mann, 2004).

A few other great names are chico, krakensplit ends, kismet, dreadlocks, mind the gap, not enough muscle, pickled eggs, pickpocket, roadkill, rolling pebbles (not to be confused with rolling stones), screw, slow as molasses, trailer hitch, transformer, zelda, bag of marbles, charlatan, dachshund, and double parked.

There still remain new genes to be discovered, even in Drosophila. In fact, one of the research studies I’m currently working on has great potential to reveal novel genes–and who knows, maybe I’ll get to help name them.

Discussion Topic: Would you make a good Drosophila scientist? Come up with a fictional gene and an associated name based on its mutant phenotype. Also, please let me know what your favorite gene names are!


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