Friday, 14 February 2014

Etymology, entymology and the importance of language in Science

While we were awaiting the arrival of Sir Mark Walport the other week, I was talking to the Y10 students about the meaning of the Scientific term "Genome". It was also the first visit to the lab of our new English Teacher, Mr. Rob Harries and he pointed out how you can begin to work out the meaning of an unfamiliar term by breaking it down (deconstruction). So, think of a Book in the Bible....Genesis, a Greek word describing the origins of life on earth, sometimes referred to as the Book of Creation. 

Think of the study of ancestry, genealogy (which has become very popular since the census can be searched online). So in respect of genome, "Gen.." is the "prefix", taken from the shorter word gene, which describes a sequence of DNA bases that specifies a sequence of RNA, that may be translated into a protein, but has its roots in the "begetting" meaning of genesis. 

Then where does the second part (or suffix) "ome" come from? Again think of words that contain the suffix -ome. For example, chromosome, proteome etc. It refers to a body or mass of something. It was in 1920 that a German Botanist, Hans Winkler, combined a Greek prefix and a Latin suffix, to generate the word Genome, which is now a household word, defining the complete set of genes that are required to produce a particular organism. This hybridisation of Greek and Latin is famously shown by the modern word Television, derived from tele (Greek) meaning far, and videre (Latin): to see. I don't know about you, but I find this interplay between the language of Science and etymology very interesting and I am very much looking forward to discussing these issues in future lab sessions with Mr. Harries.

I am also amused by the use of language by geneticists, when they choose "nick-names" for the genes that they discover. While I was a post-doc in Switzerland in the 1980s, I kept hearing the term ftz gene, in connection with Drosophila development (see image on the left). I was trying to think what the f-t-z could possibly stand for when a Japanese post doc told me it stood for fushi tarazu, which in Japanese translates as "too few segments", obvious when you compare wild type and mutant larvae!
Ten years later at Sheffield, my old colleague and friend Phil Ingham introduced me to the world of hedgehog (a mutation that leads to stubby larvae in Drosophila, right), sonic hedgehog, indian hedgehog and desert hedgehog, all variations on this phenotype! These genes are crucial in the signalling pathways involved in vertebrate development, as well as flies. So we have a close link to etymology (the study of words) and entymology (the study of insects), separated by a single consonant, n. Which brings me to the email today from Mr. Harries, to celebrate Valentine's day, which includes the line: "Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle". Remember my reference to the periwinkle? The flower from which many alkaloids that have therapeutic use have been extracted: it is also known as myrtle. I shall leave you in the hands of a genius of Art and Science, as Leonardo da Vinci once wrote: "Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else."

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