10 Genes Named After Science Fiction and Fantasy Icons

What better way to honor a famous character, creature or concept from science fiction or fantasy than to immortalize them with a scientific name? Specifically, the name of a gene.

One of the genomes most heavily populated with scifi and fantasy-themed names is that of model organism Drosophila melanogaster. Here are ten genes of the common fruit fly that derive their names from science fiction and fantasy.

Top image of Smaug by Praxiteles via DeviantART

10. Kuzbanian
Named by: Jenny Rooke, Yale Dept. of Genetics
Etymology: According to Rooke, "the name 'kuzbanian' is a reference to members of an alien lifeform of Muppets who appeared in about 4 episodes of the original Muppet Show by Jim Henson. The Koozbanians (gene spelling changed to avoid copyright infringement) dwell on the planet Koozbane and speak Koozbanese."

"They also have wildly uncontrollable hair sticking up on the tops of their heads," explains Rooke. Kuzbanian mutant flies, like their Muppet namesakes, demonstrate uncontrollable bristle growth on their wings.

9. Indy
Named by: Rogina et al., 2000
Etymology: "Indy" is actually an acronym for "I'm not dead yet." Researchers named the gene after the famous line from the "Bring Out Yer Dead" sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when they discovered that a fly with a mutated indy gene lived twice as long as non-mutant flies, "without a decline in fertility or physical activity."

10 Genes Named After Science Fiction and Fantasy Icons

8. Grim and 7. Reaper
Named by: Chen et al., 1996 & White et al., 1994, respectively
Etymology: Reaper is widely recognized for its role in programmed cell death (aka "apoptosis"). When researchers discovered grim in 1996, they noticed that it was not only situated very close to reaper, it actually shared its potent cell-slaying abilities, as well. Together, the two belong to a set of genes on a fly's third chromosome that is involved in regulating the regular elimination of cells from the body — a process that can occur under both natural and pathological circumstances.

10 Genes Named After Science Fiction and Fantasy Icons

6. Yuri
Named by: Armstrong et al., 2001
Etymology: Alright, so strictly speaking this gene isn't derived from scifi or fantasy, but it is derived from humanity's first forays into space exploration, which is pretty close.

According to FlyBase, the gene is named "yuri" because mutations in the gene are found in fly strains demonstrating strong "negative gravitaxis." This is the tendency for fruitflies exhibit strange walking
behaviour in response to gravity, namely walking up (or, more accurately, opposite), the direction of gravitational force. "This polymorphism," write the researchers, was also confirmed on the 40th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic spaceflight, "leading to the naming of the gene 'yuri,' in his honour."

10 Genes Named After Science Fiction and Fantasy Icons

5. Pray for Elves
Named by: Suzan Lewis, 2002
Etymology: This gene is actually named not for its function, but the frustration that was felt when it was first being catalogued (this was years before its function was more specifically characterized). While working diligently at annotating the FlyBase gene database, Lewis took a break to send the following email:

The name for [this gene] is PrayForElves (PFE). 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?

p.s. I am serious.

10 Genes Named After Science Fiction and Fantasy Icons

4. Smaug
Named by: Smibert et al., 1996
Etymology: Smaug inhibits the activity of another gene named "nanos," which is Greek for "dwarf." In J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit, the dragon Smaug drove the Dwarves of Erebor from their caves in the Lonely Mountain.

10 Genes Named After Science Fiction and Fantasy Icons

3. Thor
Named by: Rodriguez et al., 1996
Etymology: In Norse mythology, Thor and his mighty hammer kept the Nordic people out of harm's way. The thor gene serves a similar function in fruit flies, helping boost the bugs' immune defenses to help ward off disease.

10 Genes Named After Science Fiction and Fantasy Icons

2. Neo
Named by: Fernandes et al., 2010
Etymology: The "extracellular matrix" is the space between cells that, among other things, provides them with structural support. In 2010, Isabelle Fernandes and her colleagues characterized a number of novel matrix proteins, and subsequently "named these putative components of the matrix [and their genes] after characters of the eponymous movie," including neyo (neo), trynity (tyn), morfeyus (mey), nyobe (nyo) and cypher (cyr).

1. Tribbles
Named by: Seher et al., 2000
Etymology: The cells of fruit flies that carry a mutation in their tribbles gene will often divide uncontrollably.

"We named [the gene] tribbles," explain researchers Thomas Seher and Maria Leptin, "after the fictional small round organisms [from the Star Trek Episode 'The Trouble with Tribbles']," which can proliferate exponentially if left unchecked.

All information acquired via FlyBase, an online database and the primary repository of genetic and molecular data for the family Drosophilidae.

Grim Reaper by Wil Truman; all other images via Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise indicated