Note to science communicators–alleles not "disease genes"

By Grant Jacobs 19/11/2009 5


Popular science writing about genetic diseases, and even “common language” explanations by some scientists, use a term that conveys the wrong concept.

Let me vent a little. I’m writing a statement for an up-coming meeting on genomics, medicine and law. I keep crossing a turn of phrase in the articles intended for a general audience that I dislike.

It’s commonly written “a patient carries a copy of a gene for a disease” or “a patient has a disease gene”, rather than “a patient has a change (or mutation) in the (normal) gene for X which results in disease Y”.

Sure, it’s a convenient short-hand.

It’s not helped that it’s legitimised by some scientists using it either but it’s laziness, really.

The trouble–as I see it–is that scientists are well aware that it’s a shorthand that isn’t to be read literally. When read literally it conveys the wrong concept.

How are general readers to know that?

To me a large part of science communication is conveying the concepts. The concept here is not that the patient has a new gene that causes a disease, it’s that they have a variant of the normal gene that causes a disease.

For those so inclined, the formal term for ‘a variant of a gene’ is ‘allele’. I’m not expecting this term to pop up in popular science any time soon. I do wish people would try convey the right concept, though.

It’s lazy to write otherwise, to my mind.


Other science journalism posts in Code for life:

Three kinds of knowledge about science journalism

Science journalism–critical analysis not debate

Sidebar scientists

Book review: Victorian Popularizers of Science

Scientists can’t write?


5 Responses to “Note to science communicators–alleles not "disease genes"”

  • Ha, I’ve noticed this too. Its just part of the sloppiness that passes for science journalism.

    Don’t assume, btw, that people who use the word ‘allele’ knnow what it means. Those crackpots are everywhere. About a decade I went to an anti-GE meeting organised by the Green party. We were told that the speaker had been studying the subject extensively for two years. He duely got up and, within the first minute of speaking, had told us that human chromosomes come in pairs each of which was known as an allele. I was the only one there who realised what he had just revealed about his level of understanding. Incredibly, despite such alow starting point, it managed to sink further.

  • Couldn’t agree more, Grant! Unfortunately, not only do those who use ‘allele’ not necessarily know what it means, but those who jolly well should also mis-use the term dreadfully.

  • I think I should make myself clear: I am not trying to encourage people to use the term ‘allele’ 😉 I only put it in the title because titles need to be compact. I am trying to encourage people to re-phrase their descriptions of “disease genes” to correctly capture the allele concept.

    I thought for a while about putting something else in the title but gave up having only so much time, but thought it ironic that I was using it in the title, given I wanted to focus on the descriptions of the concept, not the term.

    You’re right that some people throw around scientific terms to give themselves credibility they don’t always deserve. As for the people who should know better…