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Curiosities of fly genes

The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster is one the most studied organisms in genetics and developmental biology. The scientists who pioneered the field of Drosophila genetics displayed an astonishing degree of creativity when it came to naming the genes they have discovered. Some of these names have very interesting stories attached to them.

• Sevenless, Bride of Sevenless, Daughter of Sevenless and Son of Sevenless: The sevenless gene (sev) is involved in the development of the fly's compound eye. The name derives from the fact that there are eight photoreceptor cells, and the R7 photoreceptor is the last to differentiate (seven less to go?). The gene encodes a receptor tyrosine kinase protein. The ligand (activator) for this receptor is known as the bride of sevenless gene (boss). When another gene downstream of this signalling cascade was discovered, it was promptly named son of sevenless (sos). The gene daughter of sevenless (dos) is also a substrate for the Sevenless kinase.

• Hedgehog, indian hedgehog, desert hedgehog, sonic hedgehog and tiggywinkle hedgehog: The origin of the hedgehog gene name is fairly self-explanatory - flies with mutant versions of this gene had spiny projections all over their body, just like a hedgehog. Scientists then tried to see if the same genes could be found in humans and mammals. They discovered not one, but three matching genes (giving them three opportunities for coming up with creative names!). The first two were called indian hedgehog (IHH) and desert hedgehog (DHH), which are actual species of hedgehogs. The third was called sonic hedgehog (SHH) after the Sega video-game character. When the matching gene was discovered in Zebrafish, another important model organism, it was named 'tiggywinkle hedgehog' after Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, a character from Beatrix Potter's books for children.

• Mothers against decapentaplegic: The gene decapentaplegic (dpp) belongs to the TGF-β superfamily of signalling molecules. When a cell receives the dpp signal, a receptor is able to activate a downstream intracellular protein called mothers against dpp (mad). The gene also displays a 'maternal effect enhancement', and is thus named humorously since mothers often form organizations opposing various issues such as 'Mothers Against Drunk Driving'.

• I'm not dead yet: This one is probably my favourite. The gene name is indy, which stands for 'I'm not dead yet', inspired by Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The phrase is uttered by a supposed plague victim being hauled off for burial while still alive ( Mutant copies of the indy gene allows the fly to live twice its natural lifespan.

• Tinman: Mutations of the tinman gene result in embryos that have no heart, similar to the character in 'The Wizard of Oz'.

• Pray for elves: The pfe gene encodes a serine/threonine kinase. Suzanna Lewis, working in the FlyBase release 3 annotation project in 1995, writes about naming the gene: "It is the middle of the night (2:38 to be precise), I am away from friends and family, It has been this way for over 2 years, I can't sleep because of all the work there is yet to do, and there is no end in sight. So when do the magic little elves appear out of nowhere and get everything done?"

• Ken and Barbie: This gene encodes a transcriptional repressor protein, responsible for down-regulating JAK/STAT target genes. Mutations in the ken and barbie locus are accompanied by malformed genitalia in adult flies. Male and female genitalia often remain inside the body, similar to the plastic dolls which inspired the name.

• Cheap Date: Flies with mutant copies of this gene produce low levels of cyclic AMP, and are especially likely to get inebriated when exposed to ethanol vapors.

• Prune and Killer of Prune: Mutations that inactivate the prune gene (pn) result in flies with purple coloured eyes. Mutations of the killer of prune (K-pn) gene causes no phenotype by itself, but kills flies that have two copies of the prune gene (hence the name, killer of prune).

Contribution to #sciencesunday , curated by +Allison Sekuler and +Robby Bowles
Check out +ScienceSunday for more posts like this!
Thanks +Rajini Rao for the idea for this post!
Photo Credit: Steve Gschmeissner/ Science Photo Library
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+Ergun Çoruh Not many faces can handle the pressure of such extreme close-ups!

+Rich Pollett Thanks! Took me a while to read up on the details and pathways to write it all out in a coherent manner - I vaguely recall learning about some of these back in undergrad but since then I haven't had much contact with the quirky world of Drosophila genetics :)
>> Mutant copies of the indy gene allows the fly to live twice its natural lifespan.

Any ideas/theories on why/how?
+Daniel Birchall No, approximately 15,016 genes.

+Ergun Çoruh Great question! indy codes for a gene that has similarity to mammalian genes encoding sodium dicarboxylate co-transporters. In frogs, INDY is involved in mediating the flux of dicarboxylates and citrate across the plasma membrane. Based on this and other experiments, it seems that INDY functions as an exchanger of dicarboxylate and tricarboxylate, which are Krebs-cycle intermediates. So the effect of decreasing INDY activity (as seen with the long-lived mutant flies) might be to alter energy metabolism in a way that could favour the lifespan extension. In worms, decreased function of INDY also resulted in a reduction of fat content and an increase in lifespan. There have been lots of studies that show how calorie restriction can increase lifespan, so perhaps this might be a similar mechanism
This is a fun resource for fly gene names:( ) though since they are user contributed, it relies on labs to fill in their own fun names, so really old names tend not to be included.
+Buddhini Samarasinghe Many thanks. I love this post and I don't' want to loose it. Is there a permanent link/website to studies like this that I can bookmark? BTW, inspired by INDY I am beginning my diet now ;)
+Ergun Çoruh You can bookmark the permanent link to this post - As to the other studies, I'm not sure if there is a website with all these links in one place. You can do searches on Pubmed ( for more specific info about indy. Actually I found this paper which seems to confirm what I said earlier, about how indy knockdown in mice mimics elements of dietary restriction ( and Yay for Open Access papers btw! If you have any more questions feel free to ask, I enjoyed looking up and learning about indy too :)
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