Monday, November 06, 2006

A Gene By Any Other Name

Drosophilia genomeThe Human Genome Nomenclature Committee ("HGNC") is charged with a vital mission: to name genes. Recently, controversy has begun to bubble up over the names given to Drosophila (fruit fly) genes that have homologues (genes with similar nucleotide sequences derived from a common ancestor) in humans.

So what has given rise to this effort to abridge the freedom of scientific speech? The problem stems from the fact that Drosophila geneticists often give their fruit flies' genes names like "lunatic fringe homolog" ("LFNG"), "manic fringe homolog" (MFNG), "radical fringe homolog" ("RFNG"), "sonic hedgehog homolog" ("SHH"), and "Indian Hedgehog homolog" ("IHH"). As yet, no scientific evidence suggests that fruit flies themselves are offended by their genes' names. Though first discovered in Drosophila, these genes (and many others) have homologues in humans.

Fruit flyCurrently the HGNC is worried that humans - a species that may possess genes for political lobbying for which fruit flies have no homologues - might react more negatively than do fruit flies to such gene names. As the HGNC's website soliciting comments on politically correcting gene names asks, "How would you feel if you were told you carried a mutation in the gene ‘Lunatic Fringe homolog (Drosophila)'?"

Perhaps the fruit flies will thank us one day for sparing them the indignity of injudicious gene names. Or maybe they will demonstrate a greater genetic potential for humor than we do, and just laugh at us.

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