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Sonic Hedgehog: The Game That Changed Our Genes

There is a gene that is essential not only for separating your right and left brains but also for having two distinct eyes. Sonic Hedgehog is both a gene and a protein that it codes for. This is how it went down.

"The official name of this gene is a sonic hedgehog," the National Institutes of Health explains (rather tiredly) in their gene notes. If you want to call it something else, the NIH only accepts the terms sonic hedgehog homolog (Drosophila), sonic hedgehog protein, or sonic hedgehog protein preproprotein. If you absolutely must avoid sonics at all costs, you can use the gene's official symbol.

So, what exactly occurred? The sonic hedgehog gene was one of three hedgehog genes named after their spiky appearance. However, the Harvard lab where SHH was discovered was not full of videogame fans; instead, a six-year comics fan was to blame.

Cliff Tabin, the chair of Harvard's genetics department and the professor whose lab was responsible for the first cloning of the sonic hedgehog gene recalls that one of the lab's British post-docs, Robert Riddle, got the name from a comic book brought over from the United Kingdom by his daughter. At the time, the videogame had not yet been released in the United States. At the time, their process paper had also just been published.

Many doctors and scientists suggested that the name be changed as the significance of the gene became clearer — and as Sonic the Hedgehog's videogame and then television series became popular. So much so that the Nomenclature Committee of the Human Genome Organization included it on a list of the top ten gene names that needed to be changed (if for no other reason than to spare a doctor having to use the phrase "sonic hedgehog gene" in an explanation to a sick patient.) However, the name stuck and is still in use today.

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