Sunday, December 31, 2006

Are some gene names too demeaning?

Recently, science journals have reported on criticism of whimsical gene names - critics say that names like sonic hedgehog and lunatic fringe are offensive to people (or parents of children) who have a disease caused by an altered variant of one of these genes. This is also occasionally being picked up by the larger media - I heard a brief reference to this debate on NPR the other day. In the Nov. 9 issue of Nature (yes, I know I'm way behind on my news) we find this news brief (subscription required). It says:

"A survey by the Gene Nomenclature Committee of the Human Genome Organisation, based at University College London, came up with ten genes that have "inappropriate, demeaning and pejorative" names, many of which are linked to eponymous developmental defects."

I agree that we shouldn't tell parents that their child has a bad sonic hedgehog gene, but the above sentence is wrong on so many levels. The gene names may be inappropriate, but, considering that these names came from the fly versions of the genes (since these genes were first discovered in flies), it makes no sense to call them "demeaning and pejorative." Nor does it make any sense to talk about the "eponymous developmental defects" since the genes are named after the fly develpmental defects, not the human ones. (Humans with mutations in one of the hedgehog genes do not look like hedgehogs, but fly embryos, with some creative imagination, do.)

What bugs me about this stupid debate is the scolding tone taken by the critics. Fly geneticists shouldn't give a damn about curbing the craziness of their gene names just because somewhere down the line the same gene may be involved in human disease. Science is a career that involves passion and fun, and biologists shouldn't walk around being excessively somber about their research, just because it may have implications for human disease.

The solution to this dilemma is simple, and shouldn't require the lecturing of the Orwellian sounding Gene Nomenclature Committee of the Human Genome Organisation. (I confess I have no clue who these people are.) Sonic Hedgehog and other such genes are frequently referred to by their abbreviations, such as Shh. This is how physicians should refer to them when speaking with patients or writing for clinical journals. Physicians can explain to their patients, who are often curious and will go do a literature search on their disease, that the gene Shh is named after the fly gene sonic hedgehog, which was named that way because it is somehow related to the hedgehog gene, which was named that way because mutant embryos look like hedgehogs. It's that simple, and nobody should be offended. And those of us who work on model organisms should be as whimsical as we want to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gene Nomenclature Committee of the Human Genome Organization?

Doubleplusungood, indeed.