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Curious Gene Names

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 12/4/2009

Maybe it helps to while away the long lonely hours at the lab bench, but some geneticists have a penchant for giving their gene discoveries curious names. There are genes called Naked, Ken and Barbie, and Chianti, and the clues to their functions lie with their names.

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    Gene Names

    When genes are discovered they are given an official name and a symbol which is an abbreviation of the name. The designations are the responsibility of the non-profit HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee which is funded by the U.K. Medical Research Council and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. So far they have named more than 13,000 human genes, but they are not the only people to take on the task. In the worlds of fly genetics scientists really let rip and over the years have come up with curious and outrageous names for their gene discoveries which some human geneticists think should be toned down. Here are a handful of them.

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    Basic Genetics - Curious Gene Names

    Ken Doll c1960 - image released into the public domain Ken and Barbie - so named because mutations in the drosophila genes leads to the absence of external genitalia - just like the plastic dolls.

    Groucho - this is where a mutation produces extra bristles around the eye and it reminded someone of Groucho Marx's bristling eyebrows.

    Dumpy - so called because the mutation produces short dumpy flies.

    Amontillado - the name comes from an Edgar Allan Poe story 'The Cask of Amontillado' where a man is lured into a cellar and walled in alive. The mutant gene prevents drosophila larvae from vigorously shaking their heads to get out of their shell, and this reminded the discoverer of the Poe story.

    Naked - the normal pattern of alternating bands of naked cuticle with bands of denticles is disrupted so that naked larval mutants do not possess denticle belts.

    Hedgehog - instead of having stripes of spiky appendages the mutant larva have denticles all over the larval cuticles. Thus, resembling hedgehog spines.

    Cheap Date - there is a gene involved in ethanol tolerance and when it was knocked out the flies had poor ethanol tolerance and behaved as if they were drunk.

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    Origin of Gene Naming

    It all started with geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) who found a white-eyed mutant drosophila amongst red-eyed wild type. So he called the causative gene white. The seemingly casual naming trend has continued, but it's not random naming for naming's sake - the trick is to be able to come up with a gene name so that its label bears some resemblance to its phenotype but it should not be too prescriptive. This is because it's unlikely that the full function of the gene will be known at the time of discovery.

    And it gets weirder; there are genes named after British desserts, vampires, lost polar explorers, Pavlov's dogs and Italian trains. Dr. Leonard Zon at Harvard Medical School works on blood diseases in zebrafish caused by changes in red and white blood cells, and new genes are named after red and white wines; and so there is Chardonnay, Chianti, Retsina, and Chablis. And when a researcher discovers a new wine gene they are given a bottle of that particular wine.

    This naming procedure doesn't go down too well with some human geneticists who would prefer a more rigid and formal naming structure. They feel that as many fly genes are being found in the human genome that some lighthearted names might be insensitive. Scientists working on flies are reluctant to change their naming procedure which they believe is a wonderful tradition, but there may be some way of adopting less quirky names on the route from fly to the human genome.