Scientists rename human genes to stop Microsoft Excel from misreading them as dates

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There are tens of thousands of genes in the human genome: minuscule twists of DNA and RNA that combine to express all of the traits and characteristics that make each of us unique. Each gene is given a name and alphanumeric code, known as a symbol, which scientists use to coordinate research. But over the past year or so, some 27 human genes have been renamed, all because Microsoft Excel kept misreading their symbols as dates.

The problem isn’t as unexpected as it first sounds. Excel is a behemoth in the spreadsheet world and is regularly used by scientists to track their work and even conduct clinical trials. But its default settings were designed with more mundane applications in mind, so when a user inputs a gene’s alphanumeric symbol into a spreadsheet, like MARCH1 — short for “Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 1” — Excel converts that into a date: 1-Mar.

This is extremely frustrating, even dangerous, corrupting data that scientists have to sort through by hand to restore. It’s also surprisingly widespread and affects even peer-reviewed scientific work. One study from 2016 examined genetic data shared alongside 3,597 published papers and found that roughly one-fifth had been affected by Excel errors.

“It’s really, really annoying,” Dezső Módos, a systems biologist at the Quadram Institute in the UK, told The Verge. Módos, whose job involves analyzing freshly sequenced genetic data, says Excel errors happen all the time, simply because the software is often the first thing to hand when scientists process numerical data. “It’s a widespread tool and if you are a bit computationally illiterate you will use it,” he says. “During my PhD studies I did as well!”
 
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