It’ll Never Fly: When Gene Names Are TOO Fun

Spatzle, clown, and sonic hedgehog. And those are just the ones fit to print.

black and white sketch of aerial view of fruit fly with wings spread against a wine-colored, paper-textured background
Credit: Shutterstock

design of typewriter with text 'science diction'Science Diction is a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.

logo that says listen on apple podcastsbadge that says 'listen on stitcher'

In 1910, a fruit fly geneticist named Thomas Hunt Morgan noticed something strange in one of his specimens. Out of his many, many fruit flies—all with brilliant red eyes—a single fly had white eyes. This fruit fly turned out to be a very big deal. From those white eyes, Morgan eventually figured out that genes can be sex-linked, confirmed that genes exist on chromosomes, and won the Nobel prize.

But he also cemented his legacy another way, with what he chose to name that gene: “white.” It might sound uninspired, but it kicked off a tradition that decades later gave us names like spatzle, hamlet, and ken and barbie. Here and there, a name went too far, but overall, fanciful names brought joy to researchers and worked well—until genes like these were discovered in humans, and everything went awry.

Johanna and Senior Producer Elah Feder team up with Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist to talk about fruit flies, genes, and whether it’s ok to name a gene after a German noodle.

Plus, after much demand, we bring you… the origin of defenestration!

Read a transcript of this episode.


Helen Zaltzman is the host of The Allusionist.


Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Senior Producer Elah Feder. D Peterschmidt is our composer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

Meet the Writers

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is the former senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produced the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

Explore More

What Do You Call A Tiny Octopus That’s Cute As A Button?

Plus: What squid have to do with Instagram filters.

Read More

Language Evolves: It’s Literally Fine

Irregardless, the dictionary’s got your back.

Read More