If you have a field of knowledge, it being a hobby for coins collection, passion for football or a science, you need names. You want to know which coins are part of your collection, you want to know your favorite players and similarly you want to know what you find/study and talk about. This is necessary simply because of communication. If I don’t know players’ names I can’t talk to my friend about how they won the match the day before, similarly, if I don’t know what I’m studying I can’t talk and tell the world about it.
In life science in particular names are everywhere. Do you have any idea of how many genes, proteins, molecules, species (and many more) are there?? Since we keep discovering new things everyday, they’re basically infinite. So if you think about it, keeping a record of everything becomes pretty hard. Giving a unique name to everything is hard.
Names in biology and biochemistry are most often now really straightforward. Sometimes they’re confusing, inconsistent and even funny. Let’s have some fun with some examples:
I was studying Developmental biology recently and apparently studies on fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) are a huge source of hilarious names. Let me introduce you to sonic hedgehog a signaling molecule named after the popular Saga character (Sonic the hedgehog). Meet smaug a RNA-binding protein named after the Dragon in the famous The Hobbit. Say welcome to the missle torpedo, the animalesque snake, the happy Easter, the tasty spatzle (if you don’t know what it is check it out), pelle and the spiny cactus all part of the same pathway!! Think I’m done??
Introducing!! The funny bag-of-marble protein, the evil brat, the spherical bucky ball, the not-so-good-looking deformed gene, the doggy dachshound, the large broad, my friend Oskar, Hippo that doesn’t have anything to do with Hippopotamuses, the panoramic glass bottom boat protein, the not-right lefty, the brothers always together paired and sloppy paired and their other lonely brother unpaired, the growing crescent, the complicated cubitus interruptus, the twins even-skipped and odd-skipped and the literal twin.
Still going! What about frizzled, disheveled, smoothened, swim and swallow? Study the tasty PIE-1, the fabolous mirror, the little runt, the ugly scute, the straightforward snail, the idraulic couple pipe and tube, the happy doublesex, the not-so-sorry sry gene and the terrible WASP protein. We also have Zelda (nope, it stands for “Zinc finger early Drosophila activator”), Churchill (apparently the english prime minister’s famous symbol V for victory symbol resemble the two zinc fingers domain of the protein. WHat?) and bozozok (japanese slang for an arrogant youth on a motorcycle. WHAT WHat??). Don’t forget merlin, rage or Nemo!
Well I guess that’s enough. Funny right? Well maybe not so much for the students that have to memorize and understand them!
We have to understand that biology as many other sciences is a super fast progressing field and old names become inappropriate very fast. And of course, renaming molecules is not doable without modifying the whole scientific literature. Fields such as botany, embriology and systematic have very old origins in which names were given with different standards. The fact is that we lack a naming standard and the guy who discover a new thing has the right of calling it as he/she wants.
Some names are easily understandable because very descriptive, others originated because of mutants external appearance, other again have been named by their biochemical function. Thus names like wingless are derived by the wingless mutant in flies, similarly fushi tarazu (in japanese: too few segments), for a mutant with too few segments, is still understandable. The well-known RTK pathway is popular between students for its MAP kinase kinase kinase. It still makes sense because (to people who knows what i’m talking about) it’s descriptive and correlated to its function. But naming after the function can create misunderstandings. For example BMP factors stands for “Bone-morphogenetic proteins” because they were discovered to promote bone growth, but now we know they can be responsible for many more functions and they can even induce cell death! So in this case the name could be highly misleading. This happens really a lot with enzymes: take GSK3. It stands for “Glycogen synthase kinase” so it’s supposed to phosphorilate (a kinase is an enzyme that trasfer a phosphate group, thus phosphorilation) the proteins “Glycogen synthase”. If this name can be useful if you’re studying the glycogen pathway, it can be very misleading if you get to know that GSK3 can actually phosphorilate a bunch of different substrates (and it also send them to degradation).
These are just “molecular” examples, but you can imagine how long we could keep going. And we didn’t talk about species naming or anatomical structure naming!
I hope you had fun, but at the same time keep thinking! I hope you realize that in the end we can’t really blame scientists for their names choiches (maybe for some cases we can), even if that make it harder to study! Let me tell you a story..
P.S. if you don’t believe me on all those funny names, I can guarantee you that they’re all in my books! But you can just google them and find out that I was not joking. That also works.