Early Doors, Ken and Barbie and Minibrain: the New Scientific Jargon

Science, as well as being about how and why things work, has always been about naming things. You discover a new bacterium, a type of fungus or a mollusc and you give it a name, slotting it into the tree of life so that it is designated under a particular kingdom, phylum, class, family, genus and, finally, species. This branch of the biological sciences is called taxonomy, and the old chestnut runs: how do you define “taxonomist”? Someone who disagrees with another taxonomist!

There are strict rules for the naming of newly discovered organisms (and the renaming of “old” organisms), and each branch of biology has a body in charge of how the organisms under its remit are named. For example, in the area in which I did my PhD there was a body, the International Committee on Systemic Bacteriology Subcommittee on the Taxonomy of the Genus Bacillus and Related Organisms, who were in charge of organising how the various species of Bacillus (a spore-forming, aerobic bacterium) were named. You didn’t want to mess with these guys! Academically speaking, they would kick head if they believed someone was taking liberties with the classification of a Bacillus species. Letters to journals contesting the naming of species were mercilessly vitriolic, and you felt these dusty old professors were capable of gleefully, and with the rustiest of pliers, pulling the fingernails off a colleague who had (in their opinion, wrongly) argued for the inclusion of a subspecies of Bacillus licheniformis under Bacillus thuringiensis, for example.

Chemists are also quite fussy about how compounds are named. You do not want to get on the wrong side of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists for incorrectly naming that flavonoid you’ve just extracted from a Mongolian mountain aven, and which you have spent seven years proving is active against mountain aven leaf mosaic virus. If you’re lucky enough to discover a new enzyme, you can’t just give it any old name. The boys and girls over at the Enzyme Commission will have a word in your ear if you deviate from their strict numerical classification system, and will frown at any trivial handle given to your enzyme outside of recognised terms such as “metal protease”, “isomerase” or a host of other “ases”. You won’t get away with calling the enzyme you isolated from a little-known, polar lichen, and which converts unbranched chiten polymers to branched helices, “fuzzifier”, for example.

Then, what the hell is happening to science these days? Outside of its traditional branches, where molecular biology and a bunch of “omics” (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics) meet bioinformatics, there is slippage occurring. The naming of things has, quite frankly, gone mad. If you ask me, it all started with Sonic hedgehog, a protein involved in vertebrate organogenesis discovered in the mid 1990s and named by the researcher Dr Robert Riddle after the SEGA video game character. Dr Riddle was following the nomenclature set by researchers working in the field of developmental embryology and who were using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster as their model organism. These folk had already designated a pair of developmental proteins “desert hedgehog” and “Indian hedgehog”, so why not go the whole, erm, hog and drag Sonic into your hedgehog pathway? Of course, Drosophila researchers had been sticking their fingers up at their quaint and stuffy research colleagues from more established (and staid) fields for years. Not for them the naming of new protein transcription factors or ligands using words or bits thereof from Latin or Greek. The Drosophila people would find a mutant, give it a cute or weird name based on the poor fly’s morphology and, hey presto, gift the research world names for novel molecules along the lines of: indy (I’m Not Dead Yet); Ken and Barbie; cheap date; daschhund; and Swiss cheese. Descriptive, but hardly, elegant or timeless.

Every area of human exploit has its jargon, its exclusive lexicon, from age-old activities such as brewing or sailing, to new fields such as telecommunications. Mastering the lingo allows one the feeling of being part of a special club — the rest of humanity who don’t get the terminology are mere civilians. Science has always been, by virtue of its reliance on jargon, almost impenetrable to the uninitiated. What I liked about scientific terminology, as I gradually mastered this new and strange language, was its erudite nature, its drawing on a past tradition that it saw as stretching back to the scientists of antiquity, Greek, Roman, Persian and Arab. When you learned a new term, not only did you learn a couple of words in Greek or Latin free gratis, but you very often got a brief lesson in the history of scientific discovery.

Take for example the triose sugar named pullulan, technically known as α-1,4-; α-1,6-glucan, and which is used to make edible films of the types found in breath fresheners. Pullulan derives its name from the fungus Aureobasidium pullulans, whose enzyme pullulanase is used in the biotechnology industry to produce pullulan from starch, as well as being used by large-scale brewers to produce low-calorie beer. Aureobasidium pullulans is so named because of its unusual ability to swarm — or pullulate. The word “pullulate” comes from the Latin pullulus — a fond term for a young animal. You can just picture lambs or puppies pullulating in the springtime!

One of my favourite designations for a bacterial species is Obesumbacterium proteus. Obesumbacterium literally means “fat rod”: obesum derives from the Latin obesus, having eaten until fat, while bacterium comes from the Greek, baktēria — staff, cane. The origin of proteus is all the more interesting. Let me quote Ian S. Hornsey from his seminal work Brewing:

The specific epithet ‘proteus’ was coined because the cells were very variable in shape (pleomorphic) especially when grown under different conditions. Proteus was the ancient Greek sea god with the ability to change shape at will. A pure culture was isolated from the Beamish and Crawford brewery in Cork, but subsequently became mislaid. Even the culture deposited in a stock culture bank disappeared! With the absence of a viable sample it was impossible to equate Shimwell and Grimes’s original description and characteristics of their strain with modern bacteriological nomenclatural requirements, and it was not until 1955 that a type strain from the Shaefer Brewing Co., Brooklyn, NY, was deposited in a culture collection (ATCC 12841) by Strandskov and Bockelmann.

As well as a learnedness and intellectual beauty to the classical method of the scientific naming of things, there was also a straight-up simplicity. Molecules called siderophores are literally (from the Greek) “iron carriers”. A chromosome is (again from the Greek) a coloured body. The yeast that is used in baking and brewing, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, could be translated from the mixture of Latin and Greek that makes up its genus and species names as “the sugar fungus of beer”. A precise and apt description. Or how about another type of yeast used to produce Lambic beers, Brettanomyces? We know that myces means fungus in Greek (mukēs). The “brett” part means British! This “British fungus” was first isolated by N. Hjelte Claussen, who worked for Carlsberg and was investigating Brettanomyces as a cause of spoilage in English ales.

By the way, it isn’t just Latin or Greek that have made a mark on scientific nomenclature. Words from many languages can be found peppering the jargon. I am proud (sometimes inordinately) of the naming of a family of linear sulphated polysaccharides — carrageenans — after an Irish word for a type of seaweed; carrageenan comes from carraigín, which means “little rock” in Irish. The very trendy transcription factor, NANOG, which is involved in the self renewal of stem cells, is named after the mythical Irish land of youth, Tír na nÓg.

I am worried that science is losing something when we start naming things after protagonists from video games or from the Mattel range of dolls. What will be next, a type of T-lymphocyte called after one of the My Little Ponies? The shift away from naming things after the Latin or Greek is understandable; a hundred years ago any self-respecting scientist would have had more than a passing knowledge of Latin and Greek. Many of the great scientific works from the Enlightenment would have been written in either of these languages, and so a command of the classics was vital. Latin was the language of medicine, as well as being a lingua franca for the trans-national exchange of ideas. Who studies the classics these days? English is now the language of scientific discourse, and the training to become a scientist is ever more centred on students exclusively studying the physical sciences from a very young age. With ever earlier specialisation and curricular funnelling it is possible for the young scientist of today to know nothing outside of science beyond video games, multiplex movies and, ahem, Ken and Barbie. So look forward to bacteria called Skywalker gloopius, Bananashape pukius and Bacillus taylorswiftensis and proteins called twerk, Trump-hair and chicken-nugget.


PS: here are some other strange terms (mostly for newly-discovered regulatory proteins) I came across in researching this article:

Dishevelled; early doors; foldamer; frizzled; lure; minibrain; sleeping beauty; smoothened; snare; timeless;


About ucronin

Born in the country town of Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland in 1975, I now live in Madrid with my partner and two young daughters and work in a research institute. While I was always a hungry reader and harboured vague notions of being a writer, as a young man writing was the furthest thing from my mind; after leaving school, I did a B.Sc. in Biotechnology in Galway's NUI, an M.Sc. in Plant Science in University College Cork and a Ph.D. in Microbiology in the University of Limerick, the plan being to dedicate my professional career to scientific research. While having written extensively within my technical scientific field, I had never contemplated becoming a writer of fiction until a road-to-Damascus moment on the N69 between Listowel and Tarbert, Co. Kerry in the summer of 2011. Since then, most of my spare time has been occupied with writing. In whatever other free moments I have, I like to listen to music, play the guitar and garden (which here in Madrid means a lot of watering of plants and spraying for red spider mite). My ambition is to become as good a writer as I possibly can, eventually freeing myself from the cold clutches of science and earning a living through my scribblings. The type of writing that excites me is honest, intelligent, well-constructed and richly descriptive.
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