Volume 84 Issue 50 | p. 56 | Newscripts
Issue Date: December 11, 2006

Gene Names, Dioxins Urban Legend, Feuding Nomenclature

Department: Newscripts | Collection: Life Sciences

Gene Names

What's in a name:
Fruit fly genes not fit for humans.
Credit: iStockphoto
What's in a name:
Fruit fly genes not fit for humans.
Credit: iStockphoto

The good folks at the Human Genome Organization's Gene Nomenclature Committee have decided that HUMAN GENES should not have embarrassing or offensive names.

Gene names became an issue because researchers are identifying genes in humans that were originally discovered in the extensive work on mutant fruit flies. Scientists who study fruit flies have been known to be very creative in their gene names, often basing them on biblical, literary, or popular references.

For example, the fruit fly gene that leaves mutant larvae unable to hatch is called amontillado, after the Edgar Allan Poe story in which a man cannot escape from a sealed wall. Or flies born practically sterile have a mutant gene called sarah, after the Bible story of Abraham's wife Sarah, who was infertile for many years before she had a child. Flies with a mutant tinman gene have no heart. The mutant cheapdate gene makes the flies especially sensitive to alcohol. And then there is the pair of genes designated grim and reaper, which together mediate programmed cell death, or apoptosis, in fruit flies.

Medical geneticists are worried that using these kinds of names might upset their patients when they have illnesses due to problems with the human gene counterparts. No one wants to hear that their illness is due to a problem with their mutant lunatic fringe gene (which can cause skeletal defects) or that they have a bad sonic hedgehog (affecting brain development).

From now on, the nomenclature committee advises that these human genes should be named with just letters, such as LNFG or SHH, respectively.

Dioxins Urban Legend

No dioxins from freezing.
Credit: iStockphoto
No dioxins from freezing.
Credit: iStockphoto

C&EN reader W. Harry Mandeville of Cambridge, Mass., has written to warn us that the e-mail scaring people about using plastics is still around and causing problems. Mandeville reports someone at his company received an E-MAIL WARNING about toxic, cancer-causing dioxins leaching from plastic products into food when heated in a microwave oven. Also, the letter claims dioxins leach from bottles into water if the bottles are frozen. This letter states that Johns Hopkins Hospital and Walter Reed Medical Center have confirmed this claim.

This letter is indeed an urban legend. It has been circulating since at least 2002, and there are a number of expert references discrediting the letter's claims.

A researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has pointed out that there is no evidence that dioxins occur in plastic containers or films. And Food & Drug Administration data show that only very, very small amounts of chemicals can migrate into food from containers. In addition, freezing would work against migration of chemicals because the cold temperature would slow releases from the bottle.

Mandeville states that he is concerned that these letters are floating around loose out there in the ether. "It's this kind of junk that gives a perfectly good chemically produced product a bad name," he writes.

Feuding Nomenclature

Nomenclature, sort of, is the topic of a note from Paul R. Jones of the chemistry department at the University of Michigan. He sent a newspaper clipping discussing advances in making fibers from PLANT MATERIAL for clothing.

The article comments that these fibers could be "organic," meaning completely naturally grown without the use of man-made chemicals. Fine so far. But the writer breaks new ground by naming products that are made with man-made fibers, such as nylon or polyester, as "inorganic" fabrics.

Jones writes that we do need a phrase to describe items that do not originate from "organic methodology," but inorganic would only create new problems. "I guess 'nonorganic' is the best candidate," Jones says, "but our future is surely going to be peppered with confusing terminology, which will bother chemists more than others."


This week's column was written by David Hanson. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

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