The Name of the Gene

While studying biology and genetics at Cambridge, we learned the names of a lot of genes. One of these was Sonic Hedgehog, a rather important gene involved in development of many organisms. Our lecturers always seemed inordinately pleased to tell us this gene’s name, perhaps hoping that the ‘cool’ name would rub off on the subject and themselves. Let me tell you this: there is nothing cool about calling a gene ‘Sonic Hedgehog’.

The New York Times has found a few people who agree, in their article ‘Sonic Hedgehog’ Sounded Funny, at First (at first? I don’t know if it ever sounded funny). There are many other genes with similarly foolish names, although none quite as silly as ‘Sonic Hedgehog’. I think even our lecturers got tired of it and after a while we just called it ‘Shh’.

At the moment, people can call genes pretty much whatever they want, and so it’s no surprise that you get a lot of crap; let’s face it, people aren’t scientists because of their sense of humour or literary skills. The whole thing still depresses me though; it suggests to the world that geneticists are just a bunch of jokers who can’t take things seriously, or at the very least, make a good joke.

There is no equivalent body in biology to the International Astronomical Union, which officially names all stars, planets, asteroids, and pretty much everything else in space, and there probably never will be. Biology moves faster than astronomy, and there are an awful lot of organisms and genes out there, and far more biologists than astronomers. The prospect of being able to name your very own gene is no small incentive for biologists, and most people take the privilege quite seriously. As usual though, there are a few people who spoil the fun for everyone.

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