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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October 27, 2012 - 11:30am
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