Discovering new species of viruses is a source of scientific pride, but baptizing them reveals the existence of a chaotic and unrigorous nomenclature system. The international body that regulates the classification and naming of viruses is committed to changing this situation now, although not all virologists agree. Why?
In the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, virologists have been busy unravelling the complexities of the coronavirus, from genome sequencing or identifying new strains to creating potential vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 disease.
In the midst of this titanic task, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), an agency under the International Union of Microbiological Societies, urges the world’s virologists to commit to standardizing the nomenclature of new virus species. That is, to adopt a unique and standard way of baptizing them.
To this end, in an article published in the scientific journal Archives of Virology, members of the ICTV executive committee proposed a unique nomenclature system, which must be reviewed by the members of the organization before October 2020, when its implementation is voted on.
This proposed nomenclature system provides the guidelines considered in the past by the agency:
- It’s international.
- Universal, that is, applicable to all virus species.
- The names of the virus species must have two words (binomial system).
- It must preserve the use of Latin, historically considered the language of biological sciences: Latinized binomial system.
What is the binomial system?
In the biological sciences, the binomial or binomial nomenclature consists of giving all species a name with two elements to identify them.
The first element refers to the genus, that is, the taxonomic category that groups a number of species. The second term corresponds to the specific name or epithet, that is, it names a unique species.
By way of example: the common chimpanzee is called Pan troglodytes. The pygmy chimpanzee or bonobo, on the other hand, is called Pan paniscus, from which it follows that they are two different species classified in the same genus (Pan).
In addition, generally, in almost all branches of biology, the species name is followed by the name of the person who made the first description of the species in question, followed by the date the description was made. Thus, the common chimpanzee, which was described for the first time in 1776 by the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, is the species called Pan troglodytes Blumenbach, 1776.
However, this does not happen in the field of virology.
Currently, the ways of naming virus species are very different from each other. It is possible to find cases of binomial nomenclature, while other species are named using a single name or, on the contrary, they follow a multinomial nomenclature.
In some cases, the species are Latinized, while in others they are not. Or there are other species that seem to have genus names, ICTV notes to exemplify the variety of criteria that exist when naming a new species of virus.
Why do they want to change the way they name viruses?
ICTV understands that it is necessary to standardize the nomenclature of virus species, i.e. that each species of the virus discovered to be named according to guidelines preset by the organization for an appropriate taxonomy.
The taxonomy is the system that organizes and classifies animal and plant organisms. In the case of viruses, ICTV classifies virus species hierarchically into inclusion categories: order, family, subfamily, genus, and species.
The taxonomy is effective, it follows a pre-established order, with clear and defined names, which respect the Latin nomenclature. However, despite ICTV recommendations, standardization of the nomenclature of new species has failed in the past.
For this reason, ICTV recommends adopting the Latinized binomial system as soon as possible. This will bring about name changes for several of the 5,560 existing species. However, the agency maintains, this standardization will be beneficial in the future.
Why use Latin to name virus species?
According to ICTV:
- Because it is consistent with what happens in biological taxonomy.
- The use of this Latinized binomial system is established in other areas of the biological sciences.
- Specialists and non-specialists know that this system refers to a species.
Likewise, while the name of the virus may vary in each language, the name of the species would remain unchanged, in a stable language.
For ICTV it would be simple and clear, without room for confusion. If a change in taxonomy is necessary, the name of the species would only change genus, but the epithet would remain unchanged. This makes it easy to track taxonomic changes.
Impact among virologists
Faced with the changes proposed by ICTV, virologist Edward Holmes, from the University of Sydney in Australia, told the journal Nature that “It is obviously good and correct to have a standardized classification scheme for naming virus species, as the current ‘system’ is utterly chaotic and a major source of frustration for those of us that regularly identify novel viruses.”
However, for the virologist, it may not be the best time to carry out this change in the system, which “can hardly be classified as ‘urgent’ compared to a global pandemic.”
Nature also refers to the opinion of the Australasian Society of Virology, which sent a letter in response to ICTV on the implementation of this system.
The @AusVirologySoc submission to the Executive Committee of the International Committee on the Taxonomy of viruses (ICTV) outlining our concerns regarding ICTVs proposed latinised binomial nomenclature for virus species pic.twitter.com/z1CjgCU4Nf
— Aust'asian Virology (@AusVirologySoc) July 11, 2020
On the other hand, there are opinions in favour of the initiative, such as from the virologist Eric Delwarty, of the University of California in San Francisco, who assured that “this is the golden age of virus discovery. It is a good time to start organize this barrage of viral genomes.”