Oh, you do see some of the most eye-grabbing words in the pages of journals such as Nature. In the last issue of 2011, I was snagged by this article title: “GlcNAcylation of histone H2B facilitates its monoubiquitination.”
What a smorgasbord of dishes bigger than your head! I won’t even dive into GlcNAcylation other than to say that it is addition of GlcNAc, which is O-linked-N-acetylglucosamine, to an organic molecule in a cell, and, really, if you want to know what that’s all about, it’s more space than I can reasonably take here. But in spite of its long and arcane name, it happens a lot.
Now, histone is in a way an easier thing. It may seem like it’s a man’s note (his tone), or an elevated rock (hi stone), but it’s actually the name of a kind of protein found in cell nuclei. And, speaking of things that take more space than is reasonable, or taking long things and making them shorter, one thing that histones do is act as spools for winding DNA around them. This may sound like a nice bit of tidiness, but you don’t know the half of it. You may not even know the ten-millionth of it, which is the ratio of a DNA strand’s width to its length. Yes, the DNA in each one of your – or my – cells would, if stretched straight, be about as long as I am tall, and I’m six feet when standing straight. That’s quite the spool job.
But the word that caught my eye in particular was monoubiquitination. It’s made of such clear Latin parts (and so many of them), but the sense of it is not immediately certain from its parts. What are the parts? We start with mono, “one”; then ubiquit, “everywhere”, from ubi “where” and que “and” (so it’s literally “and where” – que tacks onto the end of a word but means “and [that word]”); the in is a suffix used for naming certain organic molecules; ation is a normal English suffix (based on Latin) that typically refers to making something into something or adding something to something. So, really, is this a one-word expression of the joke, “A Buddhist monk goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, ‘Make me one with everything’”? Or is it some three-musketeerish thing, “all for one and one for all”?
In fact, ubiquitin is a small protein – small is relative, of course; it’s made of 76 amino acids and can be represented in one-letter code as MQIFVKTLTGKTITLEVEPSDTIENVKAKIQDKEGIPPDQQRLIFAGKQLEDGRTLSDYNIQKESTLHLVLRLRGG (seriously, James Joyce would have stuffed that one into Finnegans Wake if he could have – take the time to look and see how many English words just happen to show up in it). It’s called ubiquitin because it’s sort of like the Tim Hortons of the body: you find it everywhere. (That’s a Canadian reference, for all my international readers.) And what does it do? A whole bunch of different things, but a key one is marking certain kids of proteins for recycling.
What does that mean? Well, you could think of it as being like when parks department guys go around spraypainting X onto trees that are to be cut down and mulched: having a ubiquitin attached is like having that X. Or you could think of the old Steve Martin routine where he plays a “wild and crazy guy” from Czechoslovakia talking about their way of breaking up: “You say to the woman, ‘I break with thee, I break with thee, I break with thee,’ and then you throw dog poop on her shoes. Then me and my cousin, we go looking for women who have dog poop on their shoes.” Ubiquitin would be the dog poop on the protein’s shoes.
So what’s with the mono? Well, you can add one ubiquitin, or you can add more. If you add more, it can flag other things to happen. When you’ve added just one, it’s monoubiquitination. When you add more, the word becomes macaronic: it mixes Greek and Latin – polyubiquitination.
But monoubiquitination is enough as it is: one a, two u’s, three o’s, four i’s, three n’s, two t’s, plus m b q. That’s classically sesquipedalian. Actually, sesquipedalian means “foot and a half long”; that would be 18 inches, and this word is 18 letters – but three metrical feet: two dactyls and a trochee, da-da-da da-da-da da-da, like the chorus of “I Like It Here in America” (from West Side Story) but missing the last syllable. Try singing it if you know the tune (if some guy near you has perfect pitch, follow his tone):
Flags things for recirculation; it
Causes a word nerd elation; it
Leaves you unclear where to station it.
I defy you to facilitate that with GlcNAcylation!