They have been called aloof, spineless, uncoordinated, strung out, two-faced, puny and spastic—and by some of the most respected scientists in the world. Who are receiving such insults? Genes, which their discoverers are free to name as they wish.
Many of the most outlandish labels come from the study of Drosophila, the fruit flies. Yippee, a novel fly gene, which was described in the August issue of the journal Insect Molecular Biology, is one recent example. It was named for the reaction of Katarina Roxström-Lindquist, a graduate student at the University of Stockholm, upon cloning yippee. "If she has a good result, Katarina has a habit of writing 'yippee' in the margin of her notebook," explains Ingrid Faye, Katarina's thesis advisor.
In such cases, the appellation says more about the scientist than the gene. Star Trek aficionados surface with names like vulcan and klingon. For an avid baseball fan, stranded at second is a clear way to describe a mutant that dies during development, usually in the second larval stage. Even liquor preferences make their way out of the cabinet and into the literature with genes such as grappa.
But few names are so closely tied to popular tastes or culture. Scientists more often rely on scriptural, literary or historical sources to devise a colorful term that describes what they see under the microscope. A gene that affects female fertility was dubbed sarah after the wife of Abraham who was infertile for many years but eventually bore a child. One mutation that causes fly embryos to remain headless affects the exuperantia gene, named after a famous slave in ancient Europe who was beheaded as a result of his faith. In a recent issue of the Journal of Cell Biology, Daniel St. Johnston and colleagues reported on barentsz, which they named after a Dutch explorer who froze to death in the ice near the North Pole. Why? Because the mutant blocks the movement of a key messenger RNA, causing it to get stuck in the wrong place. Agoraphobic refers to a mutant for which the larvae look normal but never crawl out of the egg shell.
Paul Adler, a biology professor at the University of Virginia, also took appearances into consideration when he coined a name for a Drosophila gene he had isolated in 1994. When he first examined a specimen with a mutation in this gene, he saw immediately how different the fly looked. "I was struck by how beautiful it was," says Adler. "Under the microscope, you can see swirling patterns, rather than all the hairs pointing in the same direction as in wildtype . . . . It immediately brought to mind Starry Night, the painting by Van Gogh." So when he isolated a similar gene that same year, he naturally enough named it Van Gogh. Adler asserts that with a descriptive designation, the connection becomes more personal and subtle between the name of the gene and its visual effects.
Stephen Crews, a professor of biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agrees: "If genes are named in a clever manner, then that probably helps you remember." He followed this prescription in 1987 when he named a Drosophila gene single-minded after the visual effect of the mutant morphology. Flies with mutations in this gene possess a single bundle of axons in their nervous systems instead of two. He had also considered using simple-minded but abandoned that label because the name could have been taken as offensive, especially if the function of the equivalent gene in people proved somehow related to a mental disability. His concern was well founded: Recent studies have implicated one of the two human single-minded genes in Down syndrome.
Political correctness has indeed been an issue in the past. In 1963 a mutant fly gene was discovered that caused males to court other males. The assigned gene name of fruity was eventually changed to fruitless after much public disapproval. A similar situation arose more recently, when scientists at Princeton University found mutations in flies that caused them to be learning-defective or, in the vernacular of the investigators, "vegged out." They therefore named the corresponding genes after vegetables—cabbage, rutabaga, radish and turnip—which some scientists found objectionable.
Fortunately such troubles rarely arise, in part because most genes do not affect the behavior or appearance of the organism so directly. When obvious clues to the action of the gene are lacking, geneticists often pick a name based on the inferred function of the gene product. Redtape is the most recent in a series of designations given to genes which, when mutated, block transport along axons. The predecessors of redtape include roadblock, gridlock and Sunday driver, all emanating from the lab of Lawrence Goldstein at the University of California, San Diego. However, names based on presumed function are often not particularly creative—sometimes they are even misleading. For example, one human gene, first described in 1992, is aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator, a mouthful that is hard to remember except by its acronym, ARNT. Worse, recent studies have shown that ARNT might not act as an aryl hydrocarbon receptor translocator after all, suggesting it might soon be due for a rechristening.
Perhaps the new name will be shorter and more memorable. Or maybe not. Even the author of starry night and Van Gogh concedes that not all genes can be designated so inventively. As Adler says, "There are a lot of genes, and only so many names you can come up with."