Science Corner: The Word for ‘Gene’

A partially completed jigsaw puzzle with an image of styled DNA double helix

Even though we have the word ‘gene’ our understanding of our genes and our DNA is incomplete. (Photo by gimono)

Mosquito control is generally not a primary public health concern in the United States, thanks in no small part to substantial mosquito control campaigns of the last century that eliminated diseases like yellow fever and malaria which were endemic or transmitted regularly here. For example, in the early days of our country, our federal government was evacuated from Philadelphia (then the capital) to escape a yellow fever epidemic. Since mosquito control was successful here, it seems reasonable to share that success with other countries. Unfortunately, some of the insecticides we’ve used in the past had significant negative consequences, so there’s a search for more benign solutions.

Some scientists have proposed a few different ways to implement a somewhat paradoxical solution to reducing the number of mosquitoes: release more mosquitoes. The trick is to release only male mosquitoes (male mosquitoes don’t drink blood or transmit disease) that have been modified in some way so that they will have fewer offspring or offspring less likely to transmit disease. Some versions involve bacterial infections that reduce fertility or interfere with the spread of disease. Others involve genetically modified mosquitoes. All of these solutions require one or more releases of modified mosquitoes into the wild. But how do you get people looking to get rid of mosquitoes to agree to being given more?

In Burkina Faso, the plan is to proceed in stages in order to build trust. The first step is to release a group of sterile male mosquitoes. They won’t have any impact on the local mosquito population or on disease transmission. They’ll largely just fly around for a few weeks and then go away. The main point is to demonstrate that such a release can be handled responsibly and with the approval of the community it is intended to benefit, while minimizing the risk of any unintended ecological consequences.

Getting that approval requires understanding of the overall project. The article mentions the need to coin a word for ‘gene’ because the Dioula language doesn’t have one. While that might be of interest, I think it’s worth remembering that roughly 100 years ago, no language had a word for ‘gene.’ That’s what science does–it reveals concepts we didn’t know about before and so we need to name them. Every language is missing words for key features of the universe, features we may not even properly know how to ask questions about yet because we can’t name them.

The idea that there are concepts your language does not express well or at all can be a little tricky to consider, since our conscious thoughts tend to rely on words. Still, unique words and lack of specific terms is not limited to the cutting edge of science. For example, there are many words in other languages to succinctly express emotions or sensations that English speakers have likely experienced but can only describe with a phrase or sentence (e.g. “the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished” which is Gigil in Tagalog).

So while at first it might seem that the lack of a word for ‘gene’ is simply an example of the need for rural communities to be educated in modern science, it should also remind us that we all have linguistic and possibly conceptual blindspots. And thus the more people of all sorts that we have involved in science, the more resources we will have to name the unknown.

A hat-tip to my boss, Kevin Hutchison, for bringing this story to my attention.

Want to read more about the role of science in expanding our language and what we can do with those concepts once we have names for them? Then you might be interested in my new book Faith across the Multiverse. And you might want to join a discussion group about the book, starting on 9/30 hosted at the Peaceful Science forum. Details and a schedule can be found here. To encourage participation, Hendrickson is offering an extra 10% discount this week only (ends 9/14); use the code MULTIVERSE here.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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