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Sonic Hedgehog: The Game That Inspired a Gene in Our Body

There is a gene that is critical not only in separating your right brain from your left brain but also in ensuring that you have two distinct eyes. Sonic Hedgehog refers to both the gene and the protein it codes for. This is how it happened.

"The official name of this gene is a sonic hedgehog,'" the NIH explains (rather tiredly) in their notes on the gene. If you're looking for another name to call it, the only acceptable substitutes offered by the NIH are sonic hedgehog homolog (Drosophila), sonic hedgehog protein, or sonic hedgehog protein preproprotein. If you're dead set on avoiding sonics at all costs, you can use the gene's official symbol, the almost.

So, what exactly happened? The sonic hedgehog gene was one of three genes known as hedgehog genes because of their spiky appearance. The Harvard lab where SHH was discovered, however, was not full of videogame fans; instead, it was a six-year comics fan who was to blame.

Cliff Tabin, 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 that his daughter brought over from the United Kingdom. The videogame had not yet been released in the United States at the time. The paper detailing their process had also just been published at the time.

As the significance of the gene became clearer — and as Sonic the Hedgehog's videogame and then television series took off — many doctors and scientists suggested that the name be changed. So much so that the Human Genome Organization's Nomenclature Committee 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.) The name, on the other hand, stuck and is still in use today.

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