What’s in a (Gene) Name?

Or, Why you shouldn’t let a fly geneticist name your kid

Common fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) are a favorite pet of experimental biologists. Because they have short lives and are easy to care for, a century’s worth of intensive study has ended up resting on their delicate wings. As a result, we might just know more about Drosophila than Homo, our own genus.

Our interest in this little pest has made it one of those species — along with dogs and livestock — that have won the evolutionary lottery and now rest on their laurels, safe in the knowledge that humans will keep them extant because we find them useful.

Fruit flies, like many arthropods, have compound eyes made up of an array of individually innervated rod-shaped units called ommatidia. These are each like a tiny retina, able to capture light and send a signal to the fly’s brain. The ommatidia are, in turn, composed of eight types of photoreceptor cells, each sensitive to a different spectrum of light. The seventh, central cell (R7) uniquely reacts to ultraviolet light, allowing Drosophila to see things humans cannot. In the course of their study, researchers interested in the embryonic development of eyesight discovered a gene that is essential for the growth of the R7 cell. When they mutated and expunged this gene, they found that the adult fly lost R7 in every ommatidia.

Naturally, when a new gene or protein is discovered, it has to be named. In the vast majority of cases, the names researchers pick are pretty dry and academic. The name usually describes a function or alludes to how it was found. For example, cytochrome P450 is so named because is was discovered in cell debris that absorbed 450 nanometer light (cytochrome literally means “cellular color”). The enzyme hexokinase is just that: a kinase that works on hexoses (sugars). Sometimes, naming conventions result in mildly entertaining names, like flippase, which is an enzyme that flips lipids from one side of a cell membrane to another. For the most part, though, scientific naming is pretty sterile.

But, for some reason, fruit fly geneticists exist on another planet. They seem to say “screw it,” and try their hardest to come up with clever names that just barely fit within naming conventions. You know a scientist cares about her gene when the name she gives it is some nerdy and obscure joke.

And the results of this passion are predictably amazing.

The gridlike pattern is this dragonfly eye is caused by the packing of individual hexagonal ommatidia. Each eye has thousands.

The researchers who named the gene neccesary for growth of the R7 cell in fruit flies didn’t go too far from the established naming norm. They called their gene sevenless, since deleting the gene resulted in flies lacking the seventh retinal cell. Seems fair. But then things got silly when genes encoding proteins that act alongside sevenless were discovered. The Son of Sevenless (SOS) gene family encodes proteins that interact with and respond to dominant activity of Sevenless. Meanwhile, the protein that turns on Sevenless activity is encoded by the gene Bride of sevenless (BOSS). In case you didn’t catch it, that’s a sex joke and a ‘the woman is always right’ joke rolled up into one gene name. These people are batting for the fences.

The crazy part is, for fruit fly genetics jokes, this isn’t even weird:

Without the gene tinman, flies develop without a heart.

Cheapdate causes flies to be ultra-sensitive to alcohol.

Changes in Van Gogh protein make swirled patterns on flies’ wings.

Members of the hedgehog gene set are named after different species of hedgehog, including the elusive sonic hedgehog.

Mutations to the ken and barbie gene prevent the formation of genitalia.

To be clear, these aren’t just the names that scientists use after they’ve had a few. They’re the names actually printed in peer reviewed, scientific journals.

Unfortunately, as some of these genes get discovered in humans, their names are bound to change. A doctor would be put in a pretty uncomfortable position if he had to explain that a patient’s alcohol intolerance was caused by a mutation called cheapdate.

But, don’t let that stop you, fly geneticists. Biology without genes named after humanoid pieces of plastic would be joyless and cruel.

You’re what makes the world go round. Keep it up.

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