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I studied biochemistry at University, and I remember spending hours copying pathways, reading and rereading textbooks, then summarising, checking, drawing, testing, making mnemonics, in short EVERYTHING I could do to help me memorise things. There is a lot to remember in biochemistry, and a lot of words which don’t mean much that have to go in the right place. JAK activates JEK activates MEK which activates an enzyme which travels to the nucleus and binds to blah which attaches to blah region of the DNA and has the effect of increasing glucose absorption. Or something. Frankly I can’t remember anymore, and I’m damn glad I don’t have to try.

Meaningless acronyms are an annoying part of science, and of any job really. At work I talk about getting a tvc cadded, matching the key to the clapper and ingesting it – to anyone who hasn’t done TV advertising this is complete jibberish. Biochemistry is really no different – if you don’t know much about it, it’s because no one has explained it to you properly using normal words.

This post is not about normal words. Screw normal words! This is about the awesome, the spectacular, the creative and the downright weird.

These are some of the coolest names I have come across for proteins and genes, and a lot of them are found in the fruit fly Drosophila. Drosophila is the white lab rat of developmental science, it’s always the guinea pig because it reproduces REALLY fast, and creates multiple offspring in a single frenzy. Some other species (including humans) also get a mention in this list.

Tinman – Drosophila with a mutation to tinman develop with no heart.
Maggie – a mutation causes arrested development, in the Simpsons Maggie never ages.
Cheap Date – mutation causes Drosophila to be extra sensitive to alcohol. Another gene called Lush does the same thing.
Cleopatra – Cleopatra was killed by an asp, and interaction of mutant Cleopatra protein with the Asp protein is lethal.
Ken and Barbie – mutants (both male and female) lack external genitals.
Swiss Cheese – mutants have holes in their brain.
Grim Reaper – two separate genes, together they cause cell death.

For those biblically minded of us, there is Lot – mutants have more salt than usual, or Sarah – mutants are almost sterile, or Methuselah – mutants live extra long. Prefer Greek Myths? How about Ariadne, who showed Theseus how to get through the Minotaurs Labyrinth – in Drosophila, Ariadne mutants stop the axons of nerve cells finding their targets. Love Shakespeare (who doesn’t?), take Hamlet – which affects development of cells descended from IIB cells – “to be or not to be.”

Sometimes the names help us remember how things link together, take these names from Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant that’s like the Drosophila of plant genetics. Superman mutants have extra stamens in their flowers, while the Clark Kent is a milder version of the mutation, and Kryptonite suppresses the function of Superman.

Zebrafish have some neat ones too – including one-eyed pinhead, cyclops and squint – all important in the development of an embryo.

How about in humans? Well yesterday I talked about a spiky little protein called Sonic Hedgehog, which was originally found in, you guessed it, Drosophila, but which plays an important role in embryo development in humans. There’s not a huge number of genes with cool names in humans, and there’s a good reason for that. Imagine you had a child who was very sick and you met with the doctor, who looked at you seriously and said “I’m sorry, it’s genetic. Your son has a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene.” There are a couple of others, like Tigger which is a segment of DNA which hops around into different locations

Those are my faves, but there’s plenty more out there. These are samples from My Favourite Gene Names and Gene Names by Organism, and I know there’s others that didn’t make the list. FlyNome has a searchable database of heaps of Drosophila genes and the story behind them. It’s almost worth getting into Drosophila research just for the cool names, plus imagine if you found a new gene and got to name it yourself… oh the possibilities…