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5 New Buzzwords Borrowed From Biology

I’ve just finished revising the latest edition of my human genetics textbook, and while checking the glossary, discovered several potential new buzzwords, a few particularly relevant in these strange times.


Co-opting terms from science may have begun with “organic,” it’s definition so evolved that I must insert “(carbon-containing)” when I first use the term in a genetics book. Last week for the first time I heard “inorganic,” presumably meaning “not genuine”.
Here’s another from chemistry: “We live now in a different era, in which our attitudes on truth and nonfiction have grown more atomized,” writes LA Times book editor David L. Ulin, referring to dissecting a scene in narrative nonfiction into its facts. In science atomize means “reduce to small, distinct units.”

“Granularity” is a biological alternative to “atomized.” According to the Urban Dictionary, granularity means “breaking down a process or system into smaller modules to make it more accessible/easier to comprehend,” like condensing a detailed government report into, say, a one-page news brief. To me, granularity evokes images of granulocytes, white blood cells identified by the types of granules they contain. A neutrophil has granularity; a lymphocyte doesn’t.

From physics we have the ever-present “optics,” usually uttered profoundly by a politician or broadcast journalist. “Optics” is an entirely unnecessary new buzzword – “perspective” was just fine. But somehow optics was distilled from “seeing things through a different lens.” Those familiar with physics may utter “refraction” too.

“Cis” and “trans” denote extremes of gender identity, but in chemistry the terms refer to the relative positions of atoms around a double carbon bond: if they’re on the same side of the bond, the atoms are in cis. If opposite, trans. News reports on the dangers of trans fats never seem to get so far as to actually explain what the term means. Cis and trans also refer to whether variants of two genes are on the same (cis) or different (trans) copies of a chromosome. “Fluid gender” is to cis/trans gender as continuously varying traits are to the binary representations of single (Mendelian) genes.

Perhaps my least favorite popular term taken from my own field is “it’s in her DNA.” “It” usually isn’t.


So here are a few candidate buzzwords, in alphabetical order:

Old definition: Adenosine triphosphate, the “energy currency” of the cell, in which shattered high-energy phosphate bonds power life.

New definition: Energy

Example: Aerobics instructors could chant ATP! ATP! ATP!

Old definition: A chemical pathway or cycle in which one of the products keeps the reactions going.

New definition: A falsehood that, repeated enough times, becomes accepted by some as the truth, despite clear evidence that it is not so.

Example: “That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period,” said Sean Spicer. (See A photographic fact-check.)

Old definition: One gene masking the expression of another.

New definition: One comment or event distracting from another. In politics, may occur with regular or increasing frequency.

Example: President Trump at first attributed the firing of the FBI director to Hillary Clinton’s emails, which his reps echoed, but then switched to the Russian investigation. The Russian investigation is epistatic to Hillary’s emails in the firing of James Comey (See interview with Lester Holt.)

Old definition: Part of a gene sequence initially represented in the corresponding messenger RNA that must be cut out before the encoded protein forms, or it causes extreme damage.

New definition: Something that is necessary to produce something but if retained can cause great damage. (Not to be used synonymously with moronic.)

Example: Kellyanne Conway is intronic, having been necessary to get the president elected, but then after uttering absurd comments about alternative facts and microwave ovens, she became a liability. (See 12 alternative facts of human genetics).

Put it in the proteasome
Old definition: A proteasome is a cell structure into which misfolded or otherwise abnormal proteins are threaded, disassembled, and their parts ejected, before they can do harm.

New definition: An extended version of “put it in the parking lot,” the proteasome variant takes action rather than just tabling a challenging problem.

Example: “Put the new federal budget that eviscerates science, disease prevention, and biomedical research in the proteasome!”



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