• Question: Could you please explain briefly how the genetic nomenclature works? How could we know a little bit about a gene at the first sight of its name? Thanks!

    Asked by amandazzh to Loren, Sam, Toby on 26 Jun 2014.
    • Photo: Tobias Warnecke

      Tobias Warnecke answered on 26 Jun 2014:

      Hi Amanda,

      nomenclature can be really systematic or quite random, and sometimes the gene name tells us something useful, sometimes it doesn’t tell us anything at all.

      Let me give you a few examples:

      In yeast, one of the most frequently used organisms for research, genes are named, for example, YAL001C. The “A” tells you it’s on chromosome number 1, the “L” tells you it’s to the left of the centromere, the number tells you is the first gene to the left of the centromere, and the “C” tells you it’s on the Crick strand (the bottom strand of the DNA).
      So here, the nomenclature tells you something useful about the physical location of the gene on the chromosome.

      But in many other organisms, including humans, genes have been named as they have been discovered (and many had been discovered based on mutant effects before we had the genome sequence!) So they are often descriptive, something like “Methyl-binding domain protein”.

      And then there’s crazy stuff, especially in Drosophila, where individual labs have traditionally been able to name genes they have characterized, so there are genes called “Spock” and “saxophone”, and “lava lamp”…

      So often, you don’t get an immediate insight into what the gene does. And it gets worse: often genes are given names because they have a similar sequence to a known gene in another organism. But they might be doing quite different things!

      so, bottom line: gene names can sometimes give you a first idea about what genes do, but you can’t rely on it.

    • Photo: Loren Macdonald

      Loren Macdonald answered on 26 Jun 2014:

      Hi Amandazzh

      I’m not entirely sure what you mean by genetic nomeclature? Could you explain? If you mean by how genes are named- it depends. There’s not necessarily a set way to name a gene. Different genes were found in different organisms and therefore they get named in different ways. It’s an unfortunate thing that a lot of genes were named a long time ago and people didn’t necessarily stick to any set rules.

      As for knowing about a gene by its name- you can’t always for the same reasons. For example the p53 protein gene is TP53 tumour protein 53. This is because the protein it produces is around 53kDa in size and is a tumour suppressor protein. A lot of other genes, especially those found in fruit flies, are named after what the fruit fly looked like when they removed that gene- so you get eyeless, wingless, sonic hedgehog etc- and some of these gene names have been carried across to the human gene.

      Some gene names are obvious- but they’re not always. Easiest way to know what it does is to look it up in most cases.