Excel Kept Messing Up the Names of Genes, So Scientists Renamed Them

We’re powerless against technology

Simon Pitt
Debugger

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Photo: Aajan/Getty Images

I love making spreadsheets. I like lining up little columns of numbers and writing formulas to do things to them. It’s halfway between coding and note-taking. I have sheets for accounts (obviously) but also for projects, holidays, and hobbies. There’s one for the contents of my loft. My New Year’s resolutions? They’re in a spreadsheet. Often, when I start thinking about something, I automatically open a sheet and structure my thoughts into rows and columns. If all you have is a spreadsheet, everything looks like a cell (to misquote Abraham Maslow.)

Use Excel for any length of time and you become familiar with its foibles. Type in a phone number and, if you’re unlucky, it’ll turn it into something like 8.E+09. Best case scenario you’ll lose the first 0. Sometimes numbers get turned into dates. Sometimes dates get turned into numbers. I’ve got used to seeing #N/A.

These things are annoying, but you get used to them. However, if you’re a geneticist, problems like these plague your industry. Typing most genes into Excel isn’t a problem. “Myosin regulatory light chain interacting protein” is fine (shortened to MYLIP), but type in “Membrane-associated ring-CH-type fingers” (shortened to MARCH1) and Excel recognizes it as a…

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Simon Pitt
Debugger

Media techie, software person, and web-stuff doer. Head of Corporate Digital at BBC, but views my own. More at pittster.co.uk