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18 Gene Names that Cover the Gamut, From Movies to Pop Culture to Cartoons

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Some might believe that scientists stay holed up in their laboratories wearing white coats, mixing chemicals, and hanging out with lab animals, but the truth is that we do get out occasionally. That influence from the outside world continually creeps in and shows up in new discoveries—in the form of creative gene names. Varying expression of single genes in model organisms helps scientists to determine what they do. The results of the mutations are often quite humorous, resulting in equally funny names for the genes responsible. Though most gene names are relatively boring—combinations of letters and numbers in what appear to be random sequence—when scientists let loose, movies, TV, awkward social situations, and folk characters all provide a bit of comic relief to the normal, stuffier, scientific terminology.

1. and 2. Grim and Reaper

When these two genes work together, they help guide cells in flies through their death process, apoptosis—much like that spectre of 15th century folklore, the Grim Reaper.

3. Tinman

When a mouse embryo has a mutated version of this gene, it will develop with no heart, just like the Tinman from the Wizard of Oz.

4. Casanova

Zebrafish with this gene mutation are born with two hearts. Eighteenth century Italian womanizer, song, movie, TV series—regardless of the reference, this fish can probably spread more love than any human heartthrob.

5. Rolling Stones

When zebrafish have this mutation, the otoliths, or particles located in the ear that help to control equilibrium, are in abnormal locations. Their stones have indeed been rolled, but the gene name probably resulted from too much hard rock music in the lab.

6. Spock

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Zebrafish with this gene mutation develop pear-shaped ears, which probably reminded the researcher of the Vulcan’s phenotypic pointy ear shape.

7. and 8. Van Gogh

This gene mutation varies between species. In zebrafish, the result of a mutation is very small ears; in fruit flies, the wings develop in a swirly pattern. The zebrafish gene subtly references when Van Gogh cut off one of his ears, while the fruit fly gene creates a wing pattern reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

9. Sonic Hedgehog

This gene mutation causes fly embryos to be covered in projections that resemble spikes; the researcher who discovered it was reminded of a certain blue videogame and TV character, Sonic the Hedgehog. It is currently a popular gene of study because of its relationship with stem cells and cancer development, and thus is mentioned frequently in scientific literature.

10. Callipyge

A Greek term that translates to "beautiful buttocks." A mutation in this gene causes sheep to develop very large, muscular, hind ends.

11. Dumpy

Cousin of Sleepy, Dopey, and Grumpy? Not exactly, but a mutation in this gene does cause a type of worm, C. elegans, to develop in an irregular manner. Instead of appearing long and slender — typical worm shape — they become short, fat and, dare we say, dumpy? A similar type of mutation in humans is responsible for disorders such as osteogenesis imperfecta, brittle bone disease.

12. INDY

This gene name is an acronym for “I'm Not Dead Yet,” a reference to a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A mutation in this gene increases the lifespan, or causes fruit flies to be “not dead,” about twice as long as normal, wild flies.

13. Dracula

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The zebrafish that have this mutation are definitely sensitive to light (though you probably couldn't ward them off with garlic). When these fish are exposed to light, their blood cells all burst, and the fish then die, similar to how Dracula would react when faced with the sun.

14. Brainiac

This gene brings back memories from the 90’s cartoon, Pinky and the Brain. One would imagine that Brain might have had a similar genetic mutation, one that causes excess development of brain cells in fruit flies, explaining his genetically altered, enlarged head.

15. Cheap Date

Flies with this mutation are extremely sensitive to alcohol—they only need a few drops to appear drunk.

16., 17., and 18. Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Riesling

There are also several zebrafish mutants with alterations to genes that result in lower than normal numbers of red blood cells. The alterations cause each fish to have blood that varies in color. The shades of red inspired each gene to be named after a variety of wine, each of which shares a similar hue with the fish's blood.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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