Journal Logo

What Lies Beneath

What Lies Beneath

Sonic Hedgehog, Pikachu, and Science

Johnston, Michelle MBBS

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000650964.76637.10
    Tinkerbella nana, a parasitic fairy-fly.

    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 for my emergency medicine basic science exams in 1995. For those of you who can do such advanced math with large numbers, that is 25 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 only been recently discovered, unearthed, unveiled. Equally wonderful is the freedom that some of the discoverers felt when naming their finds.

    This list is nothing more than for you to stockpile and use at parties, grand rounds, or any other time you desire to impress others 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 sinoatrial (SA) node, activated by hyperpolarization 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 marvelous 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 upward 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 signaling 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.

    The 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 develop viably at all. The labelers 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 marvelous). More than 1.6 million species on Earth have been named, although that number has likely peaked and is now on the downward spiral. (Don't get me started.) It is not surprising that the naming of species has succumbed to ridiculousness, humor, ego, and necessity. Some favorites 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 one 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 four).

    Wonderful molecule names: Jawsamycina highly toxic chain of five carbon triangles that resembles shark's teeth, Hamlet—chemically treated α-Lactalbumin folded to be (or not) lethal to cancer cells (the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape), and pikachurin—a retinal protein that enhances visual activity with lightning moves and shocking electric effects.

    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.

    Share this article on Twitter and Facebook.

    Access the links in EMN by reading this on our website,

    Comments? Write to us at [email protected].

    Dr. Johnstonis a board-certified emergency physician, thus the same as you but with a weird accent. She works in a trauma center situated down the unfashionable end of Perth, Western Australia. She is the author of the novel Dustfall, available on her website, She also contributes regularly to the blog, Life in the Fast Lane, Follow her on Twitter@Eleytherius, and read her past columns at

    Copyright © 2020 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.