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Human genes renamed as Microsoft Excel reads them as dates

10 August 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1059

Twenty-seven human genes have been renamed by the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee (HGNC) over the past year due to Excel misreading their symbols as dates.

The revised guidelines for renaming genes, reported in Nature Genetics this week, now include altering 'symbols that affect data handling and retrieval'. This encompasses all genes with symbols that are autocorrected to dates, such as MARCH1, which has been renamed MARCHF1, and SEPT1, which is now SEPTIN1.

'It's really, really annoying,' Dr Dezs┼Ĺ Módos, a systems biologist at the Quadram Institute, told The Verge. 'It's a widespread tool and if you are a bit computationally illiterate you will use it.'

Each gene is assigned an alphanumeric code, known as a symbol, which enables standardised and consistent gene naming. With the increasing prevalence of genomics in health care and medicine, this has become essential for effective communication of genetics information.

However, this auto-formatting is a default setting within Excel and, even if genes are corrected manually, it is difficult to avoid mistakes being introduced, leading to widespread effects. According to a 2016 study analysing genetic data shared from 3597 published papers, around one-fifth presented Excel errors.

Regarding changes to gene symbols, the authors wrote, 'We may consider updating symbols that have rarely or never been published, are not suitable for transfer to other vertebrates, and/or have been widely used but could cause substantial problems.'

Other changes include symbols that are common words, such as CARS to CARS1, so as to avoid false positives during searches, as well as genes with names that could be considered 'offensive or pejorative'.

The reaction to these changes from the wider genetics community has been generally positive. The geneticist Dr Janna Hutz shared the section of the new guidelines referring to symbols auto-converted by Excel on Twitter, adding 'THRILLED by this announcement by the Human Gene Nomenclature Committee'.

However, some have objected to the decision to review gene nomenclature as opposed to Microsoft, who developed Excel, altering their default formatting.

Defending this decision, Dr Elspeth Bruford, HGNC coordinator and lead author of the updated guidelines, told The Verge, 'this is quite a limited use case of the Excel software', adding that 'there is very little incentive for Microsoft to make a significant change to features that are used extremely widely by the rest of the massive community of Excel users.'

Genes renamed to stop Microsoft Excel from mistaking them for dates
Interesting Engineering |  6 August 2020
Guidelines for human gene nomenclature
Nature Genetics |  3 August 2020
Scientists rename human genes to stop Microsoft Excel from misreading them as dates
The Verge |  6 August 2020
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