The Creative Power of Naming

The ability to name is surely one of the great intellectual leaps of humankind. This is vividly illustrated in an extract of the uplifting poetry of the Kato Indians, an account of genesis: "Woodpeckers were not they say. Then wrens were not they say. Then hummingbirds were not they say. Then otters were not they say. Then jackrabbits, grey squirrels were not they say ... Then clouds were not they say. Fog was not they say. It didn't appear they say. Stars were not they say. It was very dark."

Sep 30, 2002
Richard Gallagher

The ability to name is surely one of the great intellectual leaps of humankind. This is vividly illustrated in an extract of the uplifting poetry of the Kato Indians, an account of genesis:

"Woodpeckers were not they say. Then wrens were not they say. Then hummingbirds were not they say. Then otters were not they say. Then jackrabbits, grey squirrels were not they say ... Then clouds were not they say. Fog was not they say. It didn't appear they say. Stars were not they say. It was very dark."1

In biology too, bestowing an identity is a notable event. Naming species and genes springs to mind. Gene designators often eschew the sober approach (such as SLC26A3: solute carrier family 26, member 3) for a Kato-like 'they do' system that describes a mutant phenotype. Thus, a Sunday driver mutant messes up intracellular traffic in Drosophila; a Cerberus mutant produces two-headed frog embryos, emulating the dog that guards the gates of hell in Greek mythology; and a heartless pinhead mutation results with zebrafish embryos with missing hearts and pointed heads (there is, by the by, a definite sociological thread in this topic).

Naming ideas is a little trickier than naming things, but it can be equally important. This is particularly true of the process of scientific innovation, in which the hottest ticket right now is translational research.

The term itself has actually been around for more than a decade, defined loosely as "bench to bedside and back again." But over the past couple of years translational research has acquired a new importance, judging by the full-throttle response of funding agencies. Already this year the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research focused on clinical and translational cancer research; and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute appointed a dozen physician-scientists as translational research fellows, thereby joining virtually every biomedical research funding agency, public and private, in having a translational research funding stream. And lo, the first dedicated journal is already up and running.

Precise definitions vary, reflecting agency mission and personal taste, but they all link bench research upwards and outwards. Translational research may be nothing more than a new label for applied research, but it's none the worse for that. And providing a new mechanism to develop the careers of physician-scientists, a choice that currently lacks enough appeal, is to be welcomed.

And let's face it: Translational research is a powerful, feel-good sort of moniker, the sort that might help secure funding and political interest at its current high levels. How long will it last as the new funding darling? Erwin Chargaff gets it about right: "As for scientific fashions, I should think that they last longer than women's fashions, but less long than men's."2

Richard Gallagher (rgallagher@the-scientist.com) is editor of The Scientist.

References
1. J. Rothenberg, Technicians of the Sacred, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

2. E. Chargaff, "Triviality in science: A brief meditation on fashions," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 19:324-33, 1976.