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Friday, March 04, 2005

Who says we don't have a sense of humour?

Its a long-standing principle of biology that if you discover (or create) something new, you get to name it. You have to follow certain guidelines of course, so for example I couldn't name a new sub-species of Chimpanzee Sanescientist - but I could name it Pan paniscus sanescientis or something suitably latin-sounding. This evening I was searching for a restriction enzyme suitable for cutting my DNA. Restriction enzymes are named after the organism they were originally isolated from and then numbered. So the very commonly used restriction enzyme EcoRI was discovered in E. coli strain R and it was the first one discovered. As you can imagine EcoRV was the 5th enzyme isolated from that species.

I can only imagine the schoolboy sniggers echoing around the lab when the somebody realised that the correct name for the enzyme they had just discovered from Flavobacterium okeanokoites was going to be FokI....

Some of the more conservative elements in biology have proposed that names should be vetted for suitability before being accepted - this was sparked in large part by the recent naming of a new species of bacterium discovered in the Antarctic. This particular bacterium survives the harsh winters and sub-zero temperatures by oxidising sulphur, resulting in characteristic yellow-tinged holes in the snow. The latin name for this species (which I forget I'm afraid) translates literally as "Pissholes in the snow".

Of course, if the naysayers have their way we wouldn't have such glorious names as "Sonic hedgehog" a hugely important gene involved in limb development that coincidently makes mouse fur spiky when its deleted or Saccharomyces carlsbergensis a strain of brewer's yeast discovered by (you guessed it!) the Carlsberg breweries.

My favourite though is wee1 a gene discovered in fission yeast that results in very small mutant cells when it is deleted. This gene turned out to be hugely important in cancer research - so important that 25 years later it helped its discoverer Sir Paul Nurse win the nobel prize. I've been fortunate enough to see Sir Paul lecture on a number of occassions (and even shook his hand! Woo Hoo!) and he admits that in hindsight he does regret calling it that since it can distract somewhat from the seriousness from his science...



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