Archive for December, 2019

Endlessly revisiting a bad idea

10 December, 2019

I see, in my travels through TwitterSpace (thanks @evelienadri!) that the ICTV is mulling a major rework of virus taxonomy – and that they’re wanting, among other things, to

  1. have a binomial nomenclature system, like cellular organisms
  2. work some Latin into it.

A downloadable paper on this is provided here.

Now as a sometime Study Group Chair (two different groups of plant viruses; Bromoviridae and Geminiviridae), member of a third (Potyviridae) and longtime member of (since 1987) and contributor to the ICTV, I am frankly aghast that we are revisiting territory that we left behind more than fifty years ago. It was recognised then that viruses are not like cell-based organisms, and that we had a chance to get away from the straitjacket of Latinate binomials imposed on us several hundred years ago. And now – we are to return to binomials, and to Latin, yet??

No! Please, no! The idea has exercised me and some others sufficiently to cause a bit of a Twitter storm:

The problems with virus taxonomy and nomenclature, such as they are, are largely the making of folk who ignore established and customary rules, and establish names like “Marseillevirus”: what is this? The name gives absolutely no idea; neither does “mimivirus”, which I still think was named after someone’s dog.

Bean golden mosaic begomovirus, on the other hand, very aptly describes the type member of the genus Begomovirus, as does Panicum streak mastrevirus – both geminiviruses (family Geminiviridae) in good standing. Plant virologists seem to have been the most law-abiding of ICTV members, and it was from their ranks that the idea of using generic names as identifiers first came from, as in the usage shown above.

Now what could possibly be wrong with yellow fever flavivirus, or its relative hepatitis C hepacivirus? Very descriptive of exactly which virus you mean, rather than calling them flavivirus YF35 or hepacivirus H1, or some such gobbledegook.

I realise that virology has a problem with the enormous number of sequences that appear to be whole virus genomes, that no-one knows what to do with. The answer is that a sequence is NOT a virus, until it is shown to be one – at which point it can get a name, based on its phylogenetic relationships.

Jumbling up names that have been in common usage for many years is going to be resisted; having a taxonomic scheme that reverses the order by which virologists have known things, more so. Why bother?? What is so wrong with our present naming system, that we have to so drastically change it – and moreover, have species names that may be completely different to the common names of actual viruses?

I see no good reason to get in line with the rest of biology: viruses are, after all, the most numerous lifeforms on the planet; cramming them into an archaic straitjacket devised for organism with legs or leaves, and grudgingly extended to microbes, is simply retrograde.

So let’s not do it. Please?!