As I was cruising through the emails I keep for blog fodder, I came across one that I had kept–but needed to percolate about for a while. It is a term that has disturbed me for years, and I almost hate to talk about it because I find it so distasteful. I don’t want to perpetuate it. But maybe if more people know, it might change.
But it’s only as our ability to dissect genomes has been transformed — a change that has really happened within the last ten years — that the idea of the hopeful monster has begun to stage a comeback. (Note, however, that few modern biologists use the term. Instead, most people speak of large morphological changes due to mutations acting on single genes that influence embryonic development.)
The reason this disturbs me is actually because of MeSH, not so much because of the stories of fruit flies and fish. If you go to MeSH right now and search for the term “monster” you will find it in the database. I stumbled across this years ago when testing software at Proteome. I was shocked to see this in the controlled vocabulary, and thought it must be a joke. It isn’t. I told my colleagues–we were appalled.
From MeSH, term C16.131.581 is defined as:
A fetus or infant with such pronounced developmental anomalies as to be grotesque and usually nonviable. (Dorland, 27th ed)
I know it says “do not use”. But it appears right there as a main heading, a primary term, a parent to anencephaly and conjoined twins. My colleagues and I complained to MeSH at the time (this has to be at least 8 years ago). Can’t there be a synonym for this? Can’t this get replaced with a new primary term and relegate this awful word to an alias? I just think that parents who might stumble across this in an internet search should not be subject to this. It annotates papers today (here’s just one example: PMID: 18001161, choose Display = MEDLINE from the menu). They could search PubMed and find papers annotated with this.
And that’s why I’m not so crazy about seeing that term again. I’m hopeful that this will go away. I think it is a nightmare.