Monday, 31 October 2011

IMFW: Hedgehogs

Given the runaway success of my previous post about British spies wanting to sneak hormones into Hitler's food,* I have decided to attempt a regular weekly post about interesting medical or medicine-related facts. I have, you'll be pleased to know, imaginatively decided to call this series the Interesting Medical Fact of the Week, or IMFW for short.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I love hedgehogs greatly, and if I actually owned a house and could look after it properly, I would have one of my very own. It occurs to me that responsible pet ownership is probably one of the dread Seven Signs of Adulthood; when I was little, I would have happily housed a pony in the bathroom - if only my parents had bought me one. Damn them.

Anyway, as it turns out, I'm not just rambling incoherently about hedgehogs for no reason! Because the topic of this week's IMFW is the sonic hedgehog gene, a.k.a. SHH. If you ever want to send it mail, you can find it at chromosome 7, where it snuffles around in bars and punches anyone who calls it a rat.

I first heard of the sonic hedgehog gene in my first year at university, from friends who were studying medicine, and (not unreasonably) I initially believed that they were pulling my leg about its name. As it turns out, I should have had more faith in the doctors of the future. Its name originates from the fact that, when researchers created fruit fly embryos which lacked this and other similar genes, the embryos grew spiny protuberances. Apparently, researchers are always doing this kind of thing to fruit flies. Not out of scientific interest, you understand - they're just sick in the head.**

The sonic hedgehog gene (and its woodland genetics counterparts, the indian hedgehog gene and desert hedgehog gene) are cunning beasts, no doubt, but if you want a detailed description of what they do then you can head to wikipedia. Or simply grab a first year medical student and shake them repeatedly. Essentially, SHH is important in the development of embryos, as it codes for a protein which helps to signal the layout of bodyparts.

What I find particularly interesting is the debate around its name; a couple of years ago I listened to an interesting program on Radio 4*** which looked at the naming conventions in genetics, and lighted on the sonic hedgehog gene as a particularly good example of the fact that a name bestowed on a gene in the lab might seem hilarious in the light of certain spiny protuberances, but will sound rather less funny to the parents being told that their child has a serious disability because of a mutation in his or her sonic hedgehog gene.

A hedgehog, though not an obviously sonic one.
*Yes, you heard me - a whopping seven or so people read it. Crikey.

**Like me! :D

***Old before my time? Moi?

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