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Planet Earth

Bye-Bye, Sonic Hedgehog

Geneticists spike some of their really wacky gene names.

By Stephen OrnesFebruary 1, 2007 6:00 AM

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An international committee of human geneticists recently voted to change the names of a few human genes because the current, sometimes flamboyant names—like Sonic hedgehog—are either offensive or embarrassing. Other genes earmarked for a name change include lunatic fringe, radical fringe, manic fringe, and Indian hedgehog. The vote was conducted by the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee, which establishes naming protocols for human genes.

Most of the rechristened genes were identified by geneticists studying the fruit fly; when equivalent genes were later found in the human genome, researchers simply continued using the name of the fruit fly gene to avoid confusion. In fruit fly larvae, for example, hedgehog genes (hh) direct proteins involved in segment development; in human embryos, they help organize the brain. Fly geneticists have been renowned—and chastised—for their fondness for quirky names. Here is a sampling of what they've dreamed up.

Mothers Against Decapentaplegic: This gene helps control the biochemical translation of cellular messages.

Ken and Barbie: Fruit flies with a mutation in this gene don't have external genitalia.

Maggie: Named for the youngest Simpsons character, these mutated genes result in arrested physical development.

Dunce: This gene most likely controls some parts of memory development.

Tinman: Like the Wizard of Oz character, flies with a tinman problem have no heart.

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