The inside jokes of scientists

Clearly, Einstein loved a good joke.Science is not just some rigid, boring field full of stiffs. Quite the contrary, scientists are often really quirky and really passionate about nerdy stuff (we’re certainly not in this for the money, or we’d be doctors). We can definitely have a sense of humor when it comes to our work, and this post aims to prove that. Today, just for fun, I would like to share a list of some really ludicrous names/acronyms created and used by scientists to describe scientific things.

Because C3PO is so much more than just a Star Wars droid.



1. C3PO. George Lucas would be so proud! Not only is C3PO the lovable, neurotic friend of Luke Skywalker and company, but (for scientists), he’s also “component 3 promoter of the RNA-induced silencing complex.” C3PO has something to do with gene silencing, which is not obviously related to the C3PO of Star Wars fame, so I think the person who named this protein was just a really big fan. And what’s C3PO without…


2. R2D2. Yes, believe it, there is also a protein called R2D2 and, to be fair, it was named first. The researchers behind the name probably knew they’d get some looks, so they tried to explain it like this: “We named this protein R2D2 because it contains two dsRNA-binding domains (R2) and is associated with DCR-2 (D2)” (emphasis mine). Even I feel like that’s a stretch, and it’s pretty clear they just really wanted to name something R2D2. Oh, and R2D2 and C3PO are involved in the same general cellular process, so it all (sort of) makes sense together. One of the coolest parts about all this: the guy who named R2D2 in 2003, Qinghua Liu, went on to run his own lab, in which C3PO was identified six years later. I really hope he at least got a free action figure out of it all.

Moving on — remember this guy?

Sonic the Hedgehog

3. Sonic hedgehog. I used to absolutely love playing Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Genesis back in the day. There was something so gratifying about recklessly running and rolling around collecting those rings, right? Anyway, other scientists must have liked the game too, because there’s a protein called sonic hedgehog (even though the first two “hedgehog” genes discovered were named after species of real-life hedgehogs). Funny enough, sonic hedgehog is the most popular of the hedgehog genes and plays a role in everything from central nervous system development to cancer, so we researchers hear about it fairly often. In fact, it’s so commonly discussed that I think I’ve stopped getting a true kick out of it, and there are some critics who definitely aren’t getting a kick out of it; they point out that what’s humorous to scientists falls flat to patients who have to be told “Your illness is due to a mutation in sonic hedgehog.” A fair point, but this protein was discovered in 1993 and the Sega game came out in 1991, so the timing was just right to spice up the hedgehog genes, which were generally named before the epic game was released.

And because every protagonist needs his villain:

Dr. Robotnik

4. Robotnikinin. It seemed like Sonic the Hedgehog was continually facing off against the evil Dr. Robotnik, who, as far as I can remember, flew around in two-bit contraptions he probably made himself and hoarded small, adorable animals, most likely for evil purposes (feel free to correct me on this in a comment). So it’s only proper that when a drug was discovered that could inhibit sonic hedgehog (a drug discovered in the lab where I used to work, at the time when I worked there!), they called it robotnikinin. No, I haven’t made the same typo twice — it’s robotnikinin. Several biological entities already had the suffix “-kinin,” referring to kinins, a group of structurally related proteins (though not related to the robotnikinin mechanism, as far as I can tell). Since they probably didn’t want to just call the drug “robotnik” (now that would be silly), they called it robotnikinin and it kinda sorta I guess sounds like a legitimate biology-related name.

And, lastly,


5. MTHFR. You know, I don’t think anyone was intentionally trying to be funny with this one, and I’m only hoping I’m not alone in finding it amusing. I guess I won’t explain explicitly why it’s a bit comical, so if you’re stumped then just ignore this. But for the record, MTHFR is an enzyme whose full name is methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase — a real mouthful, so I understand why scientists wanted to abbreviate it somehow. I guess I personally just would’ve chosen a different subset of letters. Any other subset.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve shared enough here to definitively show that we scientists are far from boring and that, whether intentionally or not quite, we’re sometimes clever and funny. I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface with this list, but feel free to add to it in the comments if you’re in the know. You can thank me later for any new nerdy jokes I may have inspired. :)


[Author's note: In less than a month I have to submit a thesis proposal that sort of in a way can determine whether or not they let me stay in grad school. It's kind of a big deal. My point being that after September, I can hopefully update TryNerdy much, much more. Thanks for the continued support! Stay nerdy.]


Liu Y, Ye X, Jiang F, Liang C, Chen D, Peng J, Kinch LN, Grishin NV, & Liu Q (2009). C3PO, an endoribonuclease that promotes RNAi by facilitating RISC activation. Science (New York, N.Y.), 325 (5941), 750-3 PMID: 19661431

Liu Q, Rand TA, Kalidas S, Du F, Kim HE, Smith DP, & Wang X (2003). R2D2, a bridge between the initiation and effector steps of the Drosophila RNAi pathway. Science (New York, N.Y.), 301 (5641), 1921-5 PMID: 14512631

Maclean K (2006). Humour of gene names lost in translation to patients. Nature, 439 (7074) PMID: 16421543

Echelard Y, Epstein DJ, St-Jacques B, Shen L, Mohler J, McMahon JA, & McMahon AP (1993). Sonic hedgehog, a member of a family of putative signaling molecules, is implicated in the regulation of CNS polarity. Cell, 75 (7), 1417-30 PMID: 7916661

Stanton BZ, Peng LF, Maloof N, Nakai K, Wang X, Duffner JL, Taveras KM, Hyman JM, Lee SW, Koehler AN, Chen JK, Fox JL, Mandinova A, & Schreiber SL (2009). A small molecule that binds Hedgehog and blocks its signaling in human cells. Nature chemical biology, 5 (3), 154-6 PMID: 19151731


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8 Responses to The inside jokes of scientists

  1. Eric says:

    In particle physics, we used things called Feynman Diagrams to represent particle interactions.

    Two physicists once bet on a game of darts, with the condition that the loser had to use the work “penguin” in their next paper; not a trivial task in physics. As a result, there is now a non-insignificant class of Feynman diagrams called Penguin Diagrams.

    • NerdyOne says:

      Hahaha, this got me to laugh! A lost bet actually being cemented in history is hilarious.

      Side note, I wish I knew more physics!

  2. TheBrummell says:

    There’s a gene named Frodo. It’s involved in embryogenesis in vertebrates, something to do with eye development (I am not a developmental biologist). The paper that I first encountered this gene in referenced Tolkein (1953), and talked about the protein’s role in transporting molecules with ring-structures; it’s a ring-bearer.

    I couldn’t find that paper, but my Web-of-Science skills are not great today.

  3. To rudely plug my own work some people I work with (I alas can’t take the credit!) came up with 2 elfn genes (eLRR and FN3) and 6 Elron genes (eLRR only) because they are transmembrane extracelluar leucine rich repeat domain containing proteins, the first group of which also has fibronectin 3 domains but the second group only contains leucine rich repeats.

    We tried to get a tolkin in as well but for perfectly good scientific reasons our reviewers wouldn’t allow it!

    p.s paper is Dolan et al 2007

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