It looks like rewriting human genetics is so much easier than updating Excel after all. According to a new report, default Excel formatting has forced the scientist community into renaming human genes so that they can avoid making errors in their spreadsheets. But how are these two things even related, you may wonder? Keep reading to find out more.
Excel formatting messes up genes data, leaves scientists frustrated
Well, geneticists exhibit a pattern when writing human genes and believe it or not, some of these genes have names similar to calendar dates. As a result, Excel ends up converting these names into a proper date-like format into a spreadsheet, further messing up the datasets. For example, MARCH1 that is short for Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 1 becomes 1-Mar in Excel.
This can be extremely frustrating as well as dangerous, The Verge reports:
“It’s really, really annoying,” said Dezső Módos, a systems biologist at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, United Kingdom. “It [Excel] is a widespread tool and if you are a bit computationally illiterate you will use it. During my PhD studies I did as well!”
Microsoft is unlikely to update Excel to address problems being faced by scientists anytime soon. That’s why scientists have renamed at least 27 human genes so that they don’t end up messing up the datasets. As a result, scientists renamed MARCH1 to MARCHF1, unfortunately.
In updated guidelines for human gene nomenclature (paywalled), HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee has reportedly addressed this issue. A geneticist Janna Hutz recently shared the relevant section of these new guidelines on Twitter:
THRILLED by this announcement by the Human Gene Nomenclature Committee. pic.twitter.com/BqLIOMm69d
— Janna Hutz (@jannahutz) August 4, 2020
“Symbols that affect data handling and retrieval. For example, all symbols that autoconverted to dates in Microsoft Excel have been changed (for example, SEPT1 is now SEPTINT; MARCH1 is now MARCHF1); tRNA synthetase symbols that were also common words have been changed (for example, WARS is now WARSI; CARS is now CARS1).”
Excel is extremely popular among scientists who rely on Microsoft’s application to conduct clinical trials, track their work, among other things. A 2016 study showed that nearly 20 percent of genetics research papers contained Excel errors.
Scientists proficient in Excel may avoid making these errors by changing the data type for individual columns but still, it may not be a feasible solution.