Snappy Acronyms Generate Excitement for Science (SAGES)
Snappy Acronyms Generate Excitement for Science (SAGES)

Snappy Acronyms Generate Excitement for Science (SAGES)

Scientists see great value in catchy acronyms, so they get creative when it comes to naming new tools and techniques.

Andy Tay
Andy Tay
Feb 5, 2020

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Michael Rust urgently needed a name for the new microscopic technique that he and his colleagues had invented while he was a postdoc at Harvard University. “My colleagues were referring to my project in a variety of silly names including ‘SHRIMP-FRAP’ and I really wanted an acronym that would be memorable,” recalls Rust, now a biophysicist at the University of Chicago. Channeling his frustration into good use, he “wrote down every word related to the method,” he says, and rearranged them until he found his favorite: STORM. It stands for STochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy, which makes use of light of different wavelengths to localize individual fluorescent molecule for super-resolution imaging. STORM was published in 2006, and the method has since been cited in nearly 3,900 published papers. (Disclosure: This author used STORM for super-resolution imaging of nanoparticles inside cells as a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2016.)

Acronyms are commonplace in the sciences. A recent search through Nature Methods revealed on average at least one new acronym in every monthly issue for the last decade. A well-crafted acronym may just become a commonly used word—think of laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and or gif (Graphics Interchange Format). Buzz word such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Panlidromic Repeats), which is now largely synonymous with precision gene editing, is also an acronym, first coined in the context of its natural function: an anti-viral defense mechanism in bacteria. 

To create memorable acronyms, some scientists are getting creative. Food-motivated acronyms such as TACO (Transcriptome Assemblies Combined into One) and PECAN (PEptide Centric ANalysis) are one tack. Humorous acronyms such as DISCO (3-D Imaging of Solvent-Cleared Organs) and FLIRT (Fast Local Infra-Red Thermogenetics) are another. The Scientist spoke with the creators of three recent acronyms to learn how they came to be, and to understand what those researchers think a good acronym can do for science and their careers.

See “Image of the Day: DISCO Tissue Clearing

A competitive edge

Rust emphasizes that the imaging field absolutely delights in acronyms. He even goes so far as to call it a “culture” in which researchers work to create memorable acronyms that won’t be forgotten or ignored. Coining the term STORM was instrumental to his career, he says; because it was catchy, it might have helped garner news coverage, differentiating STORM from another super-resolution imaging technique that came soon after. Just one month after Rust and his colleagues published STORM, another group reported on its super-resolution microscopy technique, which the team had named PALM (Photo Activated Localized Microscopy), an equally catchy acronym, Rust says. Stiff competition necessitates the creation of memorable acronyms so that the research community becomes more familiar with a technique and its inventors.

Personal branding

Koen Venken, a molecular biologist at the Baylor College of Medicine who in 2011 developed the MiMIC (Minos-Mediated Integration Cassette) technique for gene manipulations in Drosophila, says that he is often called “the MiMIC guy.”  He’s also sometimes referred to as “the Pacman guy,” the acronym for another genetic engineering technology he invented: P/ΦC31 artificial chromosome for manipulation. “The Pacman technique was designed to grab large pieces of DNA, instead of ghosts like the Pacman game,” Venken explains. While the acronym did not capture the full complexity of his science, readers liked it, says Koen, as did his colleagues. He adds that while acronyms might have helped his personal branding, ultimately it was the value of the science that gave them staying power. “Both technologies are useful for the Drosophila community and can be extrapolated to other model organisms.”

Playful scientists

Wenjing Wang, a protein engineer at the University of Michigan who developed the FLARE (Fast Light and Activity Regulated Expression) technique in 2017, says that her team created the acronym simply “for fun.” After an online acronym generator failed to offer satisfactory results, the team settled on FLARE in honor of the Pokémon Flareon, a fire-type character that can execute moves such as “flamethrower.” Wang, who was a postdoc at Stanford University when she and colleagues developed FLARE to characterize and manipulate neuronal activities, says she believes that most scientists are playful and want a little fun with their research. Creating acronyms is one way to spice up often monotonous lab work.

Andy Tay is a freelance science writer based in Singapore. He can be reached at andy.csm2012@gmail.com.