Science and cartoons

Guest post from Caroline Parkin.

Two pieces of news caught my eye today; a new mushroom has been described and named, and Sonic the Hedgehog, a video game character is 20. Read on to find out what the connection between them is.

Opinions are divided, heated debates can be heard in science departments the world over, the bone of contention? Should new genes, species, disease and other discoveries be named in an orderly fashion, or at the whimsy of the discoverer?

The privilege of naming a new discovery has long been the reward for diligence and hard work. Immortalizing oneself or an admired contemporary was the traditional choice.  But more imaginative choices have also been made.

One of my favourites, and close to my heart, are the members of the hedgehog gene family.  The first Hedgehog gene was discovered in 1978 by Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus, in the fruitfly, Drosophila. If Drosophila lack the gene for Hedgehog, they have a thick coat of spikes (called denticles) that reminded the scientists of a hegehog, and so that’s what they named it. Later, similar genes were found in vertebrates, but instead of there being just one Hedgehog gene, there were multiple, and they needed to be distinguished from each other, two were named after hedgehog species, Indian and Desert, whilst the most famous (and most biologically active) was amusingly named Sonic, after the video game character.

Fruitfly genes provide fertile ground for interesting names, such as the two mutants amnesiac and cheapdate. They’re both have defects in the same gene (called amnesiac), whilst the mutant amnesiac has memory loss, the change that causes the cheapdate phenotype (physical manifestation of a gene), lowers the fly’s tolerance to alcohol. 

Other favourites are; methuselah, which increases the lifespan of flies, named after the biblical figure who lived to 969, stargazermutants look up over and over (due to an affect on the cerubelum) and brainiac flies have much larger brains then normal.

Zebrafish gene names are often imaginative too, such as the class of blood mutants, that were discovered by the Zon lab, which are named after fine wines, such as chardonnay, chablis and merlot (rumour has it that the discoverer of a new gene in the lab is awarded a bottle of the corresponding wine – hence an increase in more obscure and expensive wines as time has gone on!) 

Understandably perhaps, the penchant for amusing names in science seems be dying out, in favour of methodical, structured naming, saving doctors from having to give the unfortunate news, for example, that a patient has a mutation in swiss cheese (which results in holes in the brain, although for the record, I know of no patients that have this mutation!)


However, wit amongst scientists has not been lost forever, for today I learnt of a new species of mushroom, discovered by researchers from

San Francisco State University,

that is shaped like a sea sponge, and was therefore named: 

Spongiforma squarepantsii 

after the yellow-marine dwelling-cartoon character.

This makes me happy.  

Caroline Parkin is a researcher based in the MRC Centre for Developmental and Biomedical Genetics at the University of Sheffield. She has her own website on the use of zebrafish as model organisms

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