Friday, 5 September 2014

Musical Flower Power : Going Gaga Over Ferns

Although ferns don’t have flowers I feel that this series should include all things botanical. I’ve mentioned before that some plant species are named after real people (as well as characters from myths and legends) today I deal with one of these plants – or indeed 19 of them.

In 2012 a genus of fern (a group made up of at least 19 different species) was named after Lady Gaga. I can’t resist shamelessly name-dropping at this stage and recount this personal anecdote which has absolutely nothing to do with plants but I like telling it!

During my time as duty manager at a Nottingham hotel I had the pleasure of meeting Lady Gaga. She and her dancers were staying at the hotel in January 2009 while they performed as the warm-up act for the Pussycat Dolls. This was the same night that Lady Gaga became No. 1 in the UK charts for the first time.

After the show Lady Gaga and her entourage came back to the hotel bar. Lady Gaga seemed rather tired and went to bed after a few minutes. Her 5 male dancers, however, remained, and seemed to be rather hungry. They asked for some bar food – they didn’t mind what – so I cooked up a bowl of “cheesy chips” (French fries with melted cheese on top) for each of them. They couldn’t get enough of them, and I swear all 5 of them had 3 bowls each! I almost ran out of cheese!

After about an hour, not long after 1 a.m., they asked if there was a good gay club they could go to (only 2 of the dancers admitted to being straight, and two of the others were a couple). Being a Friday night I suggested they try NG1, one of my favourite places. I wish I hadn’t. We’d been chatting for an hour and got quite flirty, and one of them invited me along (can’t remember which one, perhaps it was the gay one who was single!). I couldn’t leave work, or course, and they all dashed off to NG1 leaving me to wash their dirty dishes and finish the night audit. I know where I would prefer to have been!

Now I’ve got that out of my system let’s return to the ferns. I thought of explaining why they’re named after Lady Gaga but I can’t do any better than let you see this video from the actual scientists who chose the name.

In that video you had a brief look at the fern’s DNA sequence with GAGA in it. Maybe an explanation of the significance of these letters to all of us might be helpful.

DNA’s famous double helix shape is made up of 4 chemicals – yes, only 4 chemicals. They’ve each got a fancy scientific name and, fortunately, biologists often refer to them by just their initial letter. The 4 chemicals are thus called A, C, G and T. You saw them in the video but they didn’t say what they were.

Each physical characteristic that organisms inherit, whether it’s a genetic instruction to a group of cells to turn into blood, or a leaf, or produce hormones, is contained in specific sections of the DNA. The various combinations of the 4 chemicals form the “programming” for these instructions. You’ve guessed that there’s a limited number of combinations 4 chemicals can make, so each “programme” can consist of several hundreds or thousands of these combinations. The chemicals G and A can quite often appear together, and less often repeat themselves as GAGA. Even less often they appear within a larger combination of chemicals, and so on, until the full sequence making one specific genetic instruction is produced.

The video explains that the GAGA combination is found in exactly the same place in the DNA sequence in all 19 species of the ferns. It doesn’t occur in the same place in other ferns, nor in any other living organism. That, and the other reasons given in the video, make the GAGA combination a significant feature of the 19 fern species. This was enough for biologists to create a new genus called Gaga, and even several ferns with other botanical names were found to have the GAGA sequence and were renamed Gaga.

Unfortunately for other celebrities scientists are beginning to think about abandoning Latin names for plants and animals and using English names instead, even in China or up the Zambezi. This makes no sense as, even in English, one organism could have a different English name in every country, or even in every town (I know of 3 different words used in England for a hedgehog, for instance). Biologists will get confused if they start using more than one name, which is why Latin names began to be used in the first place. Who cares if the names sound funny or unpronounceable? There’s plenty of scientists out there with equally funny and unpronounceable names. Try telling them that they’ve got to change them.

Human DNA also contains sequences with GAGA but not in the middle of the long sequence found only in the Gaga ferns. From the biggest dinosaur to the smallest amoeba there’s a bit of GAGA somewhere in all of us!

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