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Science & Technology

Fern Named For Lady Gaga

Leoneda Inge

A group of biologists and researchers at Duke University have discovered a new group of ferns that have DNA they could not ignore. The DNA of this flat-leaved species consistently read, GaGa. So they named their discovery after pop icon Lady GaGa. 

It’s clear by the millions of fans following her on Twitter, Lady GaGa is beloved.  Gaga’s fans reach far and wide, even to a biology lab at Duke University.  Grad student Fay-Wei Li was a fan even before he spotted a new fern species in Costa Rica.

Fay-Wei Li:  "So, I was walking along the Pan American highway and I saw it growing there, I was really, really excited, it is really hard to describe a feeling of the excitement of finding a new species but it was, it was amazing."

When Li scanned the DNA of the fern, the sequence spelled out GAGA very clearly, distinguishing it from other ferns. Scientists eventually identified 18 other fern species with the same characteristics.

Lady Gaga Performance:  "What’s going on? Everyone’s going goo goo for Gaga!  Her mind controlling pop music is ruining my business.  Take her away, she’s a monster!"

It was this performance at the 2010 Grammy Awards that helped inspire the naming of the new fern genus.  Kathleen Pryer is a Biology professor at Duke and director of the Duke Herbarium.   She’s been studying ferns for 30 years. Pryer says the DNA discovery gave them an excuse to honor Lady Gaga for her artistry and her other passions.

Kathleen Pryer:  "And she certainly stands out for the LGBT community, odd scientists like me who study ferns, women.  She’s also taken on this new thing, body revolution, love yourself for who you are and how you are.  That’s awesome. I think it’s extremely empowering."

Pryer, Li, and researcher Michael Windham, Curator of Vascular Plants, led me to a special herbarium cabinet that holds only the Gaga fern specimen.

Michael Windham: " So this is the Gaga cabinet."

Inge: " Ooh, oh my!"

Michael Windham:  "This is Gaga Arizonica…"

There are all kinds of species named for celebrities.  There’s a fish species named for Frank Zappa and a California lichen named for President Barack Obama.
Duke has a very large fern collection more than eight-thousand records.  But none of them have gotten the attention of this new group of ferns.

Inge:  "Have you named something before this?"

Kathleen Pryer:  "I have actually. It was a species of oak fern from the Appalachians.  And it didn’t have this sort of reaction It was called Gymnocarpium Appalachianum.  It didn’t make the news!"

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