Scientists rename human genes because Microsoft Excel kept misreading them as dates

A gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity. Genes are made up of DNA. Some genes act as instructions to make molecules called proteins. The Human Genome Project estimated that humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes.

Each gene is given a name and alphanumeric code, known as a symbol, which scientists use to coordinate research. In the past few months, 27 of these names have been changed because Microsoft Excel kept misreading their symbols as dates.

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Microsoft Excel is programed for general day to day life applications, so when scientists use it to store a symbol like MARCH1 — short for “Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 1” — Excel converts that into a date: 1-Mar. This was causing huge problems for them. This is hugely frustrating, even dangerous, corrupting data that scientists have to sort through by hand to restore.

While this may seem bizarre for most of us, scientists have a point. When it comes to spreadsheets, Microsoft Exell has no competition, and scientists actually use it a lot to store and transfer data.

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Examples of gene symbols being rendered as dates in Microsoft Excel. | GIF: The Verge

This had also affected a lot of peer-reviewed scientific work. A study in 2016 had found that roughly one-fifth of this scientific work had been affected by Excel errors.

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There was no other solution for this as Microsoft does not allow to off this auto-formatting, and the only way to avoid it is to change the data type for individual columns. Even if they did change the data type for individual columns when the others open the same file on a different computer, errors would be back again.

The HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee or HGNC has published new guidelines for the nomenclature of the human genes. They said human genes and the proteins they expressed would be named with one eye on Excel’s auto-formatting. That means the symbol MARCH1 has now become MARCHF1, while SEPT1 has become SEPTIN1, and so on. A record of old symbols and names will be stored by HGNC to avoid confusion in the future.

“We consulted the respective research communities to discuss the proposed updates, and we also notified researchers who had published on these genes specifically when the changes were being put into effect,” Elspeth Bruford, the coordinator of HGNC, told The Verge.

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Source: The Verge

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