Gene of the Month - Cerberus

A gene named after a mythical dog with multiple heads.
14 September 2017


According to Greek mythology, Cerberus is the infamous Hound of Hades - the multi-headed guard dog responsible for watching over the gates of hell and making sure none of the naughty people get out, because, fairly obviously, who would want to try and break in? So it’s no surprise that this big bad dog is the inspiration for the name of a gene that can induce extra heads, hearts and livers in frog tadpoles. The story starts with researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, who noticed a particularly abundant messenger RNA in developing tadpoles - messenger RNA being the message that’s produced when a gene is read. When they purified it and injected it into frog embryos, they saw strange double-headed creatures, and some with duplicated organs too. That was back in 1996, and since then scientists have found versions of Cerberus in many other organisms, including mammals and humans - and while altering Cerberus activity isn’t enough to grow animals with extra heads, it seems to be very important for proper development of the head and heart, and also for setting up the differences between the left and right sides of the body. In keeping with the hellbound theme, when Japanese researchers discovered a new gene related to Cerberus in fish, they named it Charon, after the mythical Greek boatman who ferries dead souls across the River Styx to their final destination in Hades. And a version of Cerberus in chickens is known as Caronte, the Italian name for the same character. We don’t know if it’s strictly true to the story, but we do like to imagine that he has extra-large pockets full of dog biscuits for Cerberus’s multiple mouths.


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