After hours of wet lab work - transferring clear liquid into clear liquid - do you know what geneticists can’t wait to do? Name their genes and accompanying proteins. And apparently molecular biologists have a bit of fun doing it. Take the hedgehog gene. The name comes from a hairy phenotype expressed by those flies carrying the gene. And guess what that name is of a close gene variant? Sonic the Hedgehog. Perhaps this spices up scholarly articles.
Rick Baker - along with Fem and Prithi - are studying rates of evolution in an equally impressively named gene: Maelstrom (aka MAEL; Etymology, unknown), a gene that has spawned several other duplicate copies which can be found across the genome of Rick’s study animal, the stalk-eyed fly. And while the original copy is expressed in cells all throughout the body, the duplicates are only expressed in male gametes (e.g. testis). Finally, the team suspects an arms-race among the gene copies
What makes MAEL so appealing is its association with meiotic drive - a phenomenon of allelic competition that is manifested in killer sperm of stalk-eyed flies having the ability to control sex gene expression. While it is still extremely hard to find evidence of meiotic drive through lab work, it is widely theorized that meiotic drive is the reason why MAEL and similar genes may be undergoing positive selection.
So what is up with the gene copies? Rick suspects they are evolving faster (e.g.
showing higher mutation rates) than the original copy, but his team needs to test that. And why are the copies only expressed in the testis? Do the copies still function to suppress transposons? The team is set on answering these questions through bioinformatics (locating the protein, trimming the sequence, and aligning the copies to create a phylogenetic tree) and genetic lab work (PCR) with the hopes of finding evidence for positive selection.