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Science / Medicine : 9 Parts Science, 1 Part Whimsy : Fruit Fly Geneticists Are Known for Flights of Fancy When It Comes to Naming Mutant Genes

January 27, 1992|RICK WEISS | Weiss, a science writer living in New York, is a former writer for Science News magazine

Dan Lindsley pauses for a moment when asked to give the names of his favorite mutants. Well, he says, there is Drop Dead. And Coitus Interruptus. And Male Chauvinist Pigmentation. But there are so many to choose from.

About 4,000, to be exact, and Lindsley knows them all.

As professor emeritus in the biology department at UC San Diego, Lindsley has spent much of the past decade cataloguing all the mutant genes identified in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster-- genes with such improbable names as Dunce, Rutabaga, and Killer of Prune.

The encyclopedic work, co-authored by UC San Diego biologist Giorgianna Zimm and soon to be published by Academic Press, is intended as a technical reference, condensing nearly a century of research by hundreds of scientists who have used fruit flies as model organisms for basic studies in genetics. But it also provides a candid look at fruit fly geneticists, who are, it turns out, a rather droll lot, and who channel much of their talent into the creation of clever names for the genes they discover.

To be sure, weird humor is a hallmark of most scientists--a manifestation of their hunger for a measure of caprice in a line of work that, in its day-to-day execution, is monotonous and frustratingly prone to failure. But fruit fly geneticists have a reputation for an extra measure of wackiness.

They point proudly to a history of deviant behavior dating back to Thomas Morgan, the turn-of-the-century naturalist and Nobel laureate who not only studied fruit flies but ate them as well. And they take pains to distance themselves from scientists studying the tiny nematode, or roundworm, known as C. elegans --the second most popular model organism among geneticists.

Nematode watchers adamantly refrain from assigning funny names to the genes they discover and accuse fruit fly workers of going so far as to invent names they want to see in print, then spending years in search of mutant flies with deformities or behavioral traits appropriate to those names.

That has been known to happen, concedes Thomas Kaufman, an Indiana University fly geneticist. But a gene name must be more than funny. "To work, it has to have a rationale," he said in a recent interview.

Burke Judd's story is typical. A fly geneticist at the University of North Carolina, Judd discovered a faulty gene that leaves fruit flies intensely sensitive to shocks; a simple shake of the glass container housing these flies leaves them stunned and flat on their backs for several minutes. Scientifically speaking, the gene controls tiny channels that regulate salt concentrations inside cells.

But never mind all that. Judd named the gene Technical Knockout, and in scientific journals and among those in the know, the gene is now referred to as TKO.

Another mutant gene, which malfunctions only at low temperatures and knocks flies unconscious whenever the mercury dips below 76 degrees Fahrenheit, is named Out Cold. And then there is the gene that acts like a time bomb in the brain, causing sudden neurological degeneration in seemingly healthy flies. "One minute they're walking around, then all of a sudden they just topple over," said Lindsley. The gene, discussed in earnest at scientific meetings, is known as Drop Dead.

Some gene names invoke musical, literary, or historic reference. A gene that leaves young flies unable to develop into adults goes by the name Oskar, after the perpetually youthful dwarf in Gunter Grass' "Tin Drum." Trudy Schupbach at Princeton has named several genes--all of which cause sterility in female offspring--after European royal families such as Tudor, Valois and Vasa, whose reigns were cut short because of maternal sterility. And at least one fruit fly mutation embodies a biblical reference: Flies bearing a gene called Lot can drink salt solutions 10 times more concentrated than the saltiest drinks accepted by normal flies.

Names like these do not arise among geneticists studying the nematode C. elegans . Without exception they give each newly discovered gene a three-letter code, sometimes followed by a number. Unc-1, unc-2, and unc-3 are representative--a dour legacy that has spawned widespread derision from fruit fly geneticists. "You can't dynamite an interesting name out of a nematologist," said Jeff Hall, who studies Drosophila at Brandeis University.

Others put the blame on Sydney Brenner, the British father of worm genetics, who in the 1960s first proposed using C. elegans as a model organism for genetic studies. "We're not going to call our mutants things like Apricot," Hall recalls Brenner saying at a genetics conference in the 1970s.

But, for the most part, the feud between worm geneticists and fly geneticists is personal. "I have to say, worm people seem to lack a certain spark of imagination," said UC San Diego fly geneticist Michael Levine, adding that his impression is that they are "bright but nerdy."

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