Gene of the Month - Zelda

A master controller inspired by a computer game.
14 January 2018


Found in fruit flies - aren’t they all? - Zelda wasn’t actually this gene’s first name. It was originally known as Vielfaeltig, a German word meaning versatile or diverse, coined by researchers in the German lab where it was first discovered in 2006...

They discovered that a faulty version of the gene affected cell division in fly embryos, leading to many different problems ranging from issues with segmentation and muscle development to abnormalities in the nervous system, suggesting that the product of the gene was highly versatile and played many roles in fly development - hence the name.

But in 2008, a team led by Christine Rushlow in New York published a paper in the journal Nature, showing exactly what the protein encoded by the gene did. They named the protein Zinc-finger early Drosophila activator, abbreviated to ZELDA, reflecting its role in switching on many genes early on in fruit fly development.

Because the name Zelda was snappier and easier to pronounce, and better reflected the actual structure and function of the product, it stuck. Oh, and the fact that a PhD student who worked on the study was a huge fan of the video game Legend of Zelda might have had something to do with it too…

We now know Zelda is a master regulator transcription factor, involved in switching on a huge range of genes in the fertilised egg at the very earliest stages of a fruit fly’s life, playing a major role in shaping the form and function of the insect as it grows and develops.

It works antagonistically with another transcription factor called Grainyhead, with both proteins able to stick to the same sequence of DNA - CAGGTAG, if you’re interested - which is found near the start of many crucial developmental genes, and Zelda seems to hold open the DNA so genes can be switched on.


Just a comment from a game design student, the name of the game is Legend of Zelda which features a character named Princess Zelda. Just a quick edit you might want to make.

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