Fruit Fly Scientists Swatted Down Over 'Cheap Date' : Krulwich Wonders... When scientist discover something new, they sometimes get to name it. Scientists have labeled fruit fly genes things like "Cheap Date," and "I'm Not Dead Yet." But patients can take offense to this when they're diagnosed with having "Lunatic Fringe."
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Fruit Fly Scientists Swatted Down Over 'Cheap Date'

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Fruit Fly Scientists Swatted Down Over 'Cheap Date'

Fruit Fly Scientists Swatted Down Over 'Cheap Date'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Here's a list of names. Ready? Stranded at Second, Cheap Date, Out Cold and I'm Not Dead Yet. Believe or not, those are the formal scientific names of certain fruit fly genes, and thereby hangs a tale. Who better to tell it then NPR's science correspondent Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: One of the privileges of being a scientist is when you discover something new, say you found a new gene that no one has ever seen before - and let's make it a fly - you get to name it, and you can give it any name you like. Most scientist are very traditional, so with genes - which are little bits of DNA - they use in number and letter formula...

Unidentified Woman: M, zero, zero, four, four...

KRULWICH: ...which is kind of boring. But there is a group of scientists, fruit fly geneticists...

JERRY COYNE: I have to admit, I'm one of them.

KRULWICH: Who have decided - and they've been doing this for years, as Professor Jerry Coyne of University of Chicago - to get a little frisky when they name genes.

COYNE: Well, sitting at the lab for six or seven hours a day staring at flies under the microscope, your mind goes off in sort of strange directions.

KRULWICH: So, a few years ago, when Jerry discovered a gene, it was mutant gene that made his fruit flies very purple. The name he chose for that gene was Zinfandel...



KRULWICH: ...after the purple grape. And that is now the official scientific name for the gene.

COYNE: Yeah. We have the liberty to use those kind of names. I mean, some day, they may crack down on us.

KRULWICH: But in the meantime, here's what fruit fly geneticists call a gene that makes a fruit fly with no external genetalia, no visible genetalia: They call it the Ken and Barbie gene.

COYNE: That's right.


KRULWICH: That's the scientific name. And maybe my favorite gene name of all of them comes from the Monty Python movie "The Holy Grail," set during the black plague, where if you've seen the film, you'll remember there's guy with a wheelbarrow who comes down the street crying...


ERIC IDLE: (as Dead Collector) Bring out your dead.

KRULWICH: Bring out your dead.


IDLE: (as Dead Collector) Bring out your dead.

KRULWICH: And one of the bodies about to dumped into the wheelbarrow keeps saying I'm not dead yet. I'm not dead yet. Or, in the musical version on Broadway, he sings...


BLOCK: (Singing) I am not dead yet. I can dance and I can sing. I am not dead yet. I do (unintelligible) thing. I am not dead yet, don't need to go to bed. No need to call the doctor, 'cause I'm not yet dead.

KRULWICH: So, naturally, when fruit fly geneticists discovered a gene that helps fruit flies live much, much longer than expected, they chose to call it INDY, spelled I-N-D-Y, which stands for I'm Not Dead Yet.

COYNE: We're just having too much fun, you know? How often do you get the pretty little humor in your day-to-day work?

KRULWICH: Of course, not all geneticists turn genes into jokes. It's just the habit of fruit fly geneticists.

COYNE: We're nerds, you know. We're not computer nerds that sit up all night and drink Mountain Dew. But we have our own ways of being geeky, and one of them is to give funny names to things.

KRULWICH: And by the way, there's a scientific benefit, here, says Jerry, because good jokes stay in people's head. So if you're, say, a research scientist working on mammals or on porcupines and you find an usual group of animals with very really long lives, the I'm not dead yet joke reminds you there is such a thing as longevity genes. Fruit flies have them, so maybe your critters have them, too. Jokes help you remember your science, says Jerry.

COYNE: I think so. I mean, how can you forget the name - look, you know the name of gene, I'm Not Dead Yet. Right? I mean, how many genes can you name your own body? This is a gene that's in flies. So, yeah, it helps you remember them. And it - also, it tells you what they do.

KRULWICH: And yet in 2006, a London-based group, the Human Genome Nomenclature Committee, announced that some of these names are so potentially offensive to people, they should be banned right now. And because the committee is backed by major scientific journals, three of the names - Lunatic Fringe, Manic Fringe, Radical Fringe - were banned as inappropriate, demeaning and pejorative (unintelligible).

MURRAY FEINGOLD: There you go. Good for them. And I agree with them.

KRULWICH: Dr. Murray Feingold runs a birth defect center in Massachusetts.

FEINGOLD: I'm a genetic clinician.

KRULWICH: So he sees lots of patients with dwarfism and genetic cancers and diseases. And just because a genetic mutation turned up first in fruit fly doesn't mean it's only in fruit flies.

FEINGOLD: Ultimately, some of them will become mutations...

KRULWICH: In humans.

FEINGOLD: humans, without question.

KRULWICH: And because those genes were first discovered in fruit flies, those gene keep their fruit fly names. That's a problem, says Dr. Feingold. Because if a patient one day walks into his office and says tell me, doctor, what's the name of my defective gene - by the way, does that ever come up?

FEINGOLD: Oh, sure it does. People want to know the gene and what the problem is and how did it go wrong.

KRULWICH: So they ask: What gene?

FEINGOLD: Oh, they're very sophisticated. Not everybody, of course, but they're very sophisticated. If you go online...

KRULWICH: Dr. Feingold says these days, people with gene problems have Web sites and chat rooms and advocacy groups. They read, they share, they know a lot.

FEINGOLD: The days where doctor could say you have x, y, z are over.

KRULWICH: And that doesn't mean you have to tell them, well, you have the Barbie and Ken gene. I mean, they got to be...

FEINGOLD: (unintelligible)

KRULWICH: You could give it an abbreviation of some kind, right?

COYNE: But they'll just tell the patient a name that won't be funny.

KRULWICH: Exactly. Call it KAB, short for Ken and Barbie. The patient's not going to...

FEINGOLD: Why should I hide what the name of the gene is?


FEINGOLD: There should be no need for that.

KRULWICH: Yeah. But you're making no effort at all to help the research scientists who finds this jokes useful because they're so descriptive. I mean, what's more descriptive than I'm Not Dead Yet? It tells you exactly what it does. It keeps you alive.

FEINGOLD: Yes, except when that gene becomes responsible for some type of medical problem and I have to tell that patient, well, I'm sorry things don't look good because you have I'm Not Dead Yet gene. And they'll look at me, and rightfully so. Are you a physician? Are you are scientist? What are you with those type of terms?

KRULWICH: These jokes would be fine, says Dr. Feingold, if they were inside jokes, known only to scientists. But now, with the Internet, people can discover what scientists are saying to each other, so there's no privacy anymore.

FEINGOLD: So there is no such thing as inside jokes. The inside jokes now becoming outside jokes.

KRULWICH: So people who would never know about the Ken and Barbie genes, now they know. And even if scientists tried to hide their jokes, the media wouldn't let them.

FEINGOLD: The reason you're talking to me is a whole other subject, and this will be reported.

KRULWICH: I guess I should just shoot myself.


FEINGOLD: Yeah, well, not if you have that You're Not Dead Yet gene.


FEINGOLD: You'll be all right.

KRULWICH: The nomenclature committee in London told NPR there may be further occasion to ban even more joke names.

COYNE: And so, you know, someday, it's all going to revert back to very dry numbers and, you know, letters instead of names. But if they took away that priviledge, we'd still do our work and we'd still have fun, but something would have vanished from the culture.

KRULWICH: Fruit fly geneticist Jerry Coyne. I'm Robert Krulwich, NPR News

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