Gene of the month - Mothers Against Decapentaplegic

09 September 2012

Interview with

Kat Arney

And finally, our gene of the month is Mothers Against Decapentaplegic - which sounds more like the name of a death metal band than something in the genome. As with so many of these unusually named genes, it was first discovered in fruit flies - ah, those wacky fly geneticists.

It all starts back in 1982 with the discovery of a gene named decapentaplegic, which makes a protein that is vital for fruit fly development. Decapentaplegic is important for the creation of 15 imaginal discs inside a fly larva - these are the precursors of adult organs such as the antennae, wings, limbs and more. Flies with faulty decapentaplegic don't develop any of these structures, hence the name - decapenta means fifteen, while plegic means paralysis.

Mothers against decapentaplegic was found in 1995, named as a humorous nod towards campaigning organisations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. If a female fly carries a fault in the gene, it acts to switch off decapentaplegic in her embryos. Further research revealed a whole family of related proteins across many species, including humans, collectively known as SMADs. These proteins are involved in sending signals inside cells, telling them to stop dividing. Unsurprisingly, faulty SMADs are implicated in cancer, and they're an active topic of research for many scientists around the world.

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