A Rose is a Rose is a Rose.
What lies beneath this month’s column is a melange of scientific terms to amuse and delight. It is a medley of monikers, a farrago of phrases.
It seems only fair to turn my pen to some whimsy after last month’s polemic. Consider this an antidote to the grave and urgent discourse on the climate crisis.
I sat my emergency medicine basic science exams in 1995. For those of you who can do such advanced maths with such large numbers, that is twenty-four years ago. A good deal has been discovered since then, about biology, physiology, pathology, and many other -ologies in-between. It is an endless source of joy and wonder that so many fundamental functions of our organic world have been only recently discovered, unearthed, unveiled. Equally wonderful is the freedom which some of the discoverers have felt when naming their finds.
This list is for nothing more than you to stockpile and use at parties or grand rounds or any other time you desire to impress with your knowledge of the eclectic and ridiculous.
- Funny Current. This tremendous term, almost definitely thought up over a six pack of cold ones with the electrophysiology lads, refers to the inward spontaneous current through sluggish sodium channels in the sino-atrial node, activated on hyperpolarisation in the diastolic range of voltages. It makes the pace and modulates the rate, via slow inward Na+ movement flowing through the funny channels, of all things; upping the membrane potential and getting the SA node ready to fire. This is a lovely demonstration of the continuing refinement of our understanding of the autonomous activity of that most marvellous of organs, the heart. Fascinatingly, even Leonardo da Vinci was trying to understand the heart’s pacemaker, and wrote ‘As to the heart: it moves itself and doth never stop, except it be for eternity.’ Who’s to know the thoughts of the dead, but it’s possible he would have approved of the name.
- Just Another Kinase. There are upwards of 550 protein kinases in the human biological universe. Because we write these columns two months in advance, I suspect it will have gone up by a pretty factor by the time this is published. One can easily forgive the discoverers of new kinases for running out of names. There are, in fact, four in this family of vitally important protein phosphorylators, which play fundamental roles in intracellular signalling in sickness and in health, like a traditional wedding. The scientific community was not amused at the original nomenclature, chosen because the discovery was made in a veritable flurry of kinase unearthing. Thus the graduation of the name to Janus kinases, named for the two-faced Roman God of gateways.
- Sonic Hedgehog Gene. This is a vital gene on chromosome 7, which is responsible for all the parts of an embryo developing in the right way, in the right order, on the right side, so that one does not end up like a true-life Picasso painting, or otherwise not developing viably at all. The labellers of this gene have lived to regret it. Initially one of a set of three genes called hedgehog genes because of their spiky appearance, it needed its own label before the Sega whirlwind took over the world, when Sonic was just a lonely figure in a comic book, which took the fancy of one of the discoverers. Now the Human Gene Organisation would desperately love to change the name, weary of the constant questions, but it is too late. The term has stuck.
- Species Names. Less medical, more just scientific (although no less marvellous). More than 1.6 million species on earth have been named (although that number has likely peaked and is now on the downwards spiral. Don’t get me started). Thus it is not surprising that the naming of species has succumbed to ridiculousness, humour, ego, and necessity. Some favourites are: Dracorex hogwartsia (a cretaceous dinosaur, whose skull was discovered at Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota) and Gollumjapyx smeagol (a small Spanish arthropod). There is Gaga germanotta, a fern resembling a dress Lady Gaga wore to the Grammys, Tinkerbella nana, a tiny parasitic fairy-fly, and Midichloria mitochondrii. This last is a bacterium that infects the ovaries of ticks. You will either get this one, or not, and if not, you have eight films to watch for homework (nine by the time this is published)(recommended to start at Episode IV).
- Wonderful Molecule Names. Jawsamycin – a highly toxic chain of five carbon triangles which resembles shark’s teeth, Hamlet – chemically treated a-lactalbumin folded to be (or not) lethal to cancer cells (The Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape), and Pikachurin – a retinal protein which enhances visual activity with ‘lightning moves and shocking electric effects.’
And so we applaud the name bestowers, those who have refused to toe the sensible line, those who have given us a few moments of etymological joy. May the discoveries never end.