What’s in a (Gene) Name?

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Back in February of last year when I started this blog, I wrote about how important stories are to communicating science. I told of a Harvard professor who tried to make Drosophila genetics resonate with his students–to convey the magic of discovery, even to those who couldn’t care less about flies–through a tale.

So before he got into the topic at hand, he put on some classical Chinese music. The mood thus set, he recounted the myth of Jingwei, about a Chinese princess who drowned in a rowboat and then came back as a bird to exact revenge upon the sea. Her plan was to fill in the sea with twigs and rocks so that no one else could drown. Jingwei, he went on, is the namesake of a Drosophila gene once thought to be useless but “reincarnated” after a University of Chicago scientist named Manyuan Long discovered its purpose. (It’s involved in regulating hormone metabolism.) There’s no real romance in fly genes. But now that this one was linked to emperors and reincarnation and revenge fantasies, I paid attention. I learned something about genetics.

That story lured me in. And then, it seems, my story about that story touched someone else. Yesterday, I received an email from Manyuan Long himself. While searching for an image of Jingwei to use in a review article, Long stumbled on my blog post and became, he said, “deeply lost in the scene.” Long, a professor at the University of Chicago who still works on the jingwei gene, allowed me to share his email.

I returned back to the day twenty years ago when my doctoral mentor, Chuck Langley, at UC Davis challenged me: you must give a name to the new gene you just found in Drosophila, in order to win your PhD. The name has to reflect the long and beautiful culture in your old country, the story must be fitting to the biological property of this weird gene, and the recent research history of this gene should be a part of it. You were a boy who grew up in that anti-cultural social movement in the crazy time of the country, I am testing you how much you know the Chinese culture including its early history and literature. Tell me a name tomorrow or you fail in your last step of doctoral research!

That night, Long couldn’t sleep. He was overwhelmed by images from his childhood, and from contraband books of ancient Chinese mythology that his uncle had managed to spirit away, protecting them from the Red Guard’s infamous book burning during the cultural revolution. “My uncle, a rarely educated man,” he wrote, “hid his book collection and himself in a remote village in the mountainous southern Sichuan and secretly taught me the ancient Chinese literature and mythology.”

Seeking solace from the brutality around him, Long’s uncle immersed himself in mythology. And on that sleepless night, Long remembered the myth of Jingwei. Amazingly, he realized, her story was also the story of the gene’s research history. “Then you can guess that I passed the test and won my doctoral degree,” he wrote. “11 years later we figured out what the gene did functionally, [and] 20 years later, we found many genes in many organisms had the similar history of jingwei and indispensable functions. We persisted.”

I opened Long’s email on a warm Saturday afternoon when I was trying unsuccessfully to work. With deadlines and revisions looming and several other time-sensitive projects languishing in limbo, I couldn’t find creative inspiration anywhere. Despite two cups of coffee and a mugful of Earl Grey, I was slumped over my keyboard, staring at the greenery wilting in my yard. And then I read Long’s letter, and the fog in my brain parted, and by dinnertime I’d drafted a feature pitch that I’d been unable to translate from mind to sentences all week. Suddenly, it was so simple: Just tell the story. Surely I’m not the only writer who sometimes forgets this most basic of concepts? (Right? Anyone?) I’m grateful to Long for the reminder.

That was not only the story of a gene in a small fly, but a long old history [of] human beings survived by the beautiful desires they developed and the courage they worked against the brutality and stupidity, in the recent history of the old country or in the remote past of the central kingdom.

(Photo via Cultural China)

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