Scientists Give Genes Some Very Bizarre Names

Brilliance | Dec. 17, 2017

Sonic the Hedgehog is a fictional mammal that runs really fast and collects golden rings. Sonic hedgehog is the gene that's responsible for giving you two arms, two eyes, and two halves of a brain. Wondering why their names are so similar? Because scientists like to have fun, too.

Adding Color To A Black And White Subject

The sonic hedgehog gene is just one type of hedgehog gene. This gene was first discovered in the fruit fly, and is named for the spiky appearance of fruit fly larvae that have mutated versions of the gene. Once scientists discovered more versions of the hedgehog gene, they needed a way to differentiate them. British post-doctoral student Robert Riddle got the name "sonic hedgehog" from a British comic book of his daughter's. Coincidentally, SEGA began promoting their video game the same year the lab published their paper on the gene. Of course, once the video game became popular and the gene became more widely researched, scientists began contemplating whether they should change the name.

But that's not the only gene with a funny name. Try "groucho," "faint sausage," and "one-eyed pinhead" on for size. According to the New York Times, "The idea is to make the names unique and memorable — with so many genes being discovered and described, a little color helps scientists tell them apart."

Where Fun Gets Into Trouble

As you'd imagine, not everyone is too keen on these silly names. When gene talk leaves the lab and enters the doctor's office, levity stops being such a good thing. For example, the sonic hedgehog gene is linked to a condition called Holoprosencephaly, which leads to brain and facial defects. Not a laughing matter. Likewise, defects in a gene called "lunatic fringe" cause problems with skeletal development. That's why many people have petitioned to have more offensive gene names changed. So far, however, it appears that at least one label is sticking: sonic hedgehog remains that gene's official name.

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