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Thu 1 Apr 2010 21:00 BBC Radio 4

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 12 August 2009

Kakapo, Cleopatra and Pavarotti are cryptic names for genes; the clue to what they do lies in their names. Sue Broom cracks the code in this subtle game of scientific one upmanship.

Chardonay, Hedgehog and Cheap Dates all have one thing in common. They are all names for genes, specifically of fruit fly or drosophilia genes. The trick is you have to guess what it is, so for example Amontillado is a allusion to the Edgar Allan Poe book where the hero is walled in alive; the gene amontillado refers to mutant larvae who can't hatch.

Chardonay is a reference to the white blood cells and other wine genes are Chablis, retsina and Chianti. The wine collection is housed at Dr Leonard Zon's laboratory at Harvard Medical School. When one of Dr Zon's students discovers a new wine gene, they are awarded with a bottle of that particular wine, although he has got wise to them choosing some of the more rarified and expensive vintages.

Other labs prefer to use Shakespeare characters, musical references or more colloquial terms such as Lush, referring to an increased affection for alcohol. Sometimes there are races to name the gene, and a fight may break out between institutions. Kathy Matthews of the Bloomington Drosophilia Stock Centre in Indiana proudly says that fly geneticists were the first geneticists and therefore in the early days it was like being in the Wild West, but now political correctness is moving in.

More seriously, worm, mice and human geneticists think they should tone down their gene names. Its not appropriate they say to call a gene a Sonic Hedegehog.

But Kathy and her colleagues are resisting; it is part of their tradition, they say. A witty, whimsical or colloquial name can get a scientist lot of attention in the scientific community.

Sue Broom looks at some of the more famous examples and charts the resistance to turning Van Gogh into a chain of numbers and letters.


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