Naming Genes: Tinman, Buttonhead, and Kenny
Chances are you haven't given much thought to genetic nomenclature. The names of genes and the reasons behind them aren't hot water cooler topics, but this article might change that opinion.
First, it's important to understand that humans can share genes with other animals and bugs. In fact, in tune with the theory of common ancestry, large percentages of genes are shared between multiple species, like people and fruit flies.
The scientists that study fruit flies (often called Fly People) spend a lot of time looking at the insects' genetic makeup, and name the genes in ways that imply their biological function. Anyone who's ever had to memorize a long list of anything knows that the more interesting the names, the easier they are to remember. That, along with a healthy senses of humor, led the scientists to give the fruit fly genes very special names. Below is a list of just a few of them and their effects.
Out Cold: loss of coordination when the temperature drops
Tinman: difficult heart development
Ken and Barbie: no external genitalia
Stranded at Second: death in the second larval stage
Buttonhead : regulates segmentation of the head
Kenny (as in South Park): without it, the fly dies within two days
I'm Not Dead Yet, or INDY (as in The Holy Grail): long life
Funny, right? Of course - as long as the fruit flies don't get offended. The problems happen when one of these genes shows up in and causes problems for a human. Nobody wants to hear that their problems with alcohol are due to a gene called "Cheap Date."
These names aren't going to stay hidden in the labs. A search for "gene names" on the Internet will eventually lead to some bio student's post about the funny genetic terms they've learned. The situation becomes very unfunny when the genes are related to serious health complications.
A few years back, the Human Genome Organization Gene Nomenclature Committee (the group that monitors human gene names) decided that renaming some genes might be a good idea for the sakes of patients and physicians. It's tough to say "I'm sorry, but your problem is Sonic Hedgehog," and keep the conversation serious.
As for the Fly People, they're confident that they can find other ways to keep the seemingly mundane process of genetic decoding fun. But they know that the gene role call will lose some of it character with fewer names like "Lunatic Fringe" and "Shaven Baby."