Everyday gripes of a journal editor, part 53: gene or protein?

You can not be ser­i­ous – some sen­tences just don’t look right without italics

Confession time: one of the main reas­ons why I chose to study eco­logy all those years ago was in order to avoid what, to me, were twin peaks of incom­pre­hens­ib­il­ity – bio­chem­istry and genet­ics. I liked to be able to see what was going on: a plant’s growth, a leaf’s reac­tion to drought, or sto­matal responses to infec­tion were all fine, but when things got sub­cel­lu­lar the fog would des­cend and my mind would wander. So pity my poor chances of com­pre­hend­ing the molecu­lar bio­logy papers that cur­rently abound in the aver­age journal today; some­times I even struggle to work out whether the author is talk­ing about a gene or a pro­tein… and therein rests my gripe, because there is no reason at all why I should.

OK, con­ven­tions do vary a bit from journal to journal, but at a very basic level it seems gen­er­ally accep­ted that a gene name should be given in italic type whilst its pro­tein product is given in nor­mal (‘roman’) type. So increased expres­sion of the FLC gene will pro­duce increased amounts of the FLC pro­tein in the cell, a decrease in expres­sion of the MAF2 gene will res­ult in lower amounts of the MAF2 pro­tein. Of course the dis­tinc­tion isn’t needed when the words ‘gene’ and ‘pro­tein’ are present, but clearly you don’t want to repeat them dozens of times in every para­graph – so just use ital­ics instead (and no need to fumble for the ‘italic font’ but­ton: ‘Control + I’ will do the trick in a frac­tion of the time). And it’s worth being aware that if you don’t make use of ital­ics in your paper then someone else may do so on your behalf: I don’t know of any high-ranking journal that doesn’t carry out some form of edit­ing on accep­ted papers, and if you don’t make it clear what is a gene and what is a pro­tein then someone else may make a guess on your behalf – and not neces­sar­ily get it right, as illus­trated by the fol­low­ing sen­tence that appeared a few years ago in a paper on Arabidopsis: ‘After very long peri­ods of low tem­per­at­ure, how­ever, MAF2 levels decreased and a marked accel­er­a­tion of flower­ing occurred’

Now I’m only an eco­lo­gist, but I’m not sure the level of a gene can decrease, can it? But am I just being pedantic? In that example it’s pretty clear what is meant, and in terms of the over­all effects the gene and the pro­tein are almost syn­onym­ous – expres­sion levels of the MAF2 gene decrease so the level of the MAF2 pro­tein in the cell decreases, so what’s the prob­lem? Not much in that simple example, but what about a more com­plex sys­tem where the gene expres­sion increased but some other factor dis­rup­ted sub­sequent pro­duc­tion of the pro­tein caus­ing it to decrease, per­haps with sev­eral gene/protein sys­tems inter­act­ing – would your reader be able to fol­low it so eas­ily then?

Molecular bio­logy is com­plic­ated stuff, so when it comes to clar­ity every little helps.


Dave Frost is the Managing Editor of Annals of Botany. You can contact our Editorial Office at annalsbotany@le.ac.uk

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