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Scientists rename genes because Microsoft Excel reads them as dates

Microsoft's spreadsheet app is too helpful for its own good.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
August 6, 2020
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DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) structure, illustration.
KTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via Getty Images

Microsoft Excel’s automatic formatting is normally helpful for finishing spreadsheets quickly, but it’s proving to be an agent of chaos for geneticists. The Verge has learned that the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee has issued guidelines for naming human genes to prevent Excel’s automatic date formatting from altering data. MARCH1 (Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 1), for example, should now be labeled MARCHF1 to stop Excel from changing it to 1-Mar.

The names of 27 genes have been changed in the past year to avoid Excel-related errors, HGNC coordinator Elspeth Bruford said. This isn’t a rare error, either, as Excel had affected about a fifth of genetics-related papers examined in a 2016 study.

Guidelines for human gene nomenclature:

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 SEPTIN1; MARCH1 is now MARCHF1); tRNA synthetase symbols that were also common words have been changed (for example, WARS is now WARS1; CARS is now CARS1).

There will still be a library of discarded names and symbols to help reduce confusion going forward.

The scientific community has changed gene names before, but usually to minimize false positives in search results or to be sensitive to the concerns of patients. Now, it’s directly in response to software design — technology is getting in the way of research rather than speeding it up.

We’ve asked Microsoft for comment on the issue. However, we wouldn’t count on an Excel patch solving the issue. Buford noted to The Verge that genetic data represents “quite a limited use case” for Excel, and that an option to disable the date formatting would only help a tiny number of users. Still, this is a reminder that automatic formatting can easily go haywire, and that you shouldn’t take it for granted.

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