Godzilla, Hamlet and Genghis Khan and the battle for human genes

November 22, 2002

An effort to bring order to the proliferation of names given to human genes has brought out proprietorial instincts in some scientists.

The Human Genome Organisation gene nomenclature committee, based at University College London, has passed the halfway mark in assigning internationally recognised names and symbols to the approximately 30,000 genes thought to make up humankind.

The exercise, which will ease communication between scientists, is backed by the Medical Research Council and the National Institutes of Health in the US, as well as gene databases and leading journals such as Nature Genetics .

While a fraction of the names are unusual - such as Sonic Hedgehog, lunatic fringe, yippee and van Gogh - most are simply utilitarian abbreviations.

But according to Sue Povey, professor of human somatic cell genetics who heads the work, the exchanges can be "robust" when rival teams of scientists give the same gene different names.

"We feel we're winning but there are disputes all the time," she said.

The most bizarre names are usually coined during work on fruit fly genes and get passed on to their human counterparts.

Among the fruit fly genes are Hamlet, which answers the question to be or not to be; Tinman, which plays a role in heart development; and longevity-conferring Indy, an acronym inspired by the Monty Python line "I'm not dead yet." Then there is Scott of the Antarctic, Genghis Khan and Godzilla, as well as sozzled, strung out and stoned, singles bar, wishful thinking and, appropriately, sticks and stones.

US scientist Bob Belas did not hide his rationale when he named a bacterium gene ZapA. In his paper, he thanks "the late Frank Zappa for inspiration and assistance with genetic nomenclature".

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