Does the binomial name really matter? A life science researcher’s take

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Once upon a time, mankind started to note the great diversity of organisms and all life on Earth, and as creatures of habit, we had to name and classify them. However, the given names were lost in translation––literally! Whether it was a specific name or that made from several words long, it was just not well-defined, which means that life science researchers were not able to easily share their work. The problem was solved almost 300 years ago by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné). Instead of using a multitude of common names, he conceived the binomial nomenclature (“two-term naming system”) that conferred a unique and universal scientific name to each species.

The name is formed by two Latin words. The first word is for the genus, which groups similar species, and the second (called the epithet) to describe the specific species. The system resembles that of the name and surname of a person but is placed in reverse order. Whether you are an expert in botany or microbiology or even molecular biology, there are some basic rules to get this right:

  1. The entire two-part name must be written in italics (or underlined when handwritten)
  2. The genus name is always written first––always—and must be capitalized (that’s how we can differentiate between the two names)
  3. The specific epithet is never capitalized
  4. When using the scientific name more than once in a document, you can abbreviate the genus by using the first letter only (yes, capitalized) and a period.

As scientific names are unique, the correct name should be provided to avoid misinterpretations––this is critical in the field of immunology considering the complexity at the gene, protein, cell, and organism levels. Imagine an ecology research report not being specific when it comes to drafting policies for the conservation of a particular frog species given that there are over 5,000 known species of frogs; avoiding pitfalls among the policy makers as well as readers, including conservationists, researchers, and students is in line with pursuing scientific excellence!

The rules for naming are surprisingly open: the name must be spelled in only the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet but may be derived from any language and must not be offensive. Some scientists have turned to mythology (e.g., Cassiopea andromeda1 for the upside-down jellyfish), others have used religion as a source (e.g., olive baboon’s scientific name Papio anubis2 derived from an Egyptian god), and some have used geography (e.g., Australopithecus africanus3 for our first pre-human ancestor). For other names in life sciences fields, it only takes to know the language from which they are derived (e.g., the genus Alligator derives from “el lagarto” meaning “lizard” in Spanish).

Does the name really matter in life sciences research? Yes, definitely yes. Without the unique identifier of a proper binomial4, research cannot accurately be linked to the existing literature. Poor taxonomic practices create uncertainty, which can hinder reproducibility of research results. Drug discovery from plant-derived compounds requires expertise from field to laboratory and clinical skills, and the correct name provides standardization and ease of finding research papers that mention specific species/variants, without which phytomedical research is difficult.

So, do all biologists use the same nomenclature? Sort of. For those in the field of botany or zoology, binomial names need to be clearly reported knowing that the botanical nomenclature and zoological nomenclature are independent of each other.

The naming of plants is governed by two sets of published rules. The first is the International Code of Nomenclature5 (ICN), which is the set of rules and recommendations for naming algae, fungi, and plants. In brief, the codes apply a binomial system, and each and every taxon as per the ICN can have only one correct scientific name. The code6 is amended every six years at an International Botanical Congress (IBC). The second set is the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants7 (ICNCP), which is a guide to the rules and regulations for researchers in life science fields for naming plants in cultivation and considers the changing needs of users. Whether for wild or cultivated plants, research papers that contain botanical names follow some common convention: within a list, the genus name is often abbreviated to the first letter; if only the genus is known, the specific epithet is abbreviated as “sp.” for a single species or “spp.” for more than one species; hybrids are noted by a multiplication sign before the genus; subspecies are abbreviated “spp.” or “subsp”; and forms are abbreviated as “f.”

But let’s assume that you are into microbiology; well, the International Code of Nomenclature of Prokaryotes8 (ICNP) decided to denote the rules for naming taxa of bacteria and archaea as those in botany did not fit too well with the needs of bacteriologists. But not only that, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses9 (ICTV) recognized the need for a different nomenclature for virus species, although this is not yet standardized as it undergoes regular dynamic changes. Long story short, viruses are named according to their properties (e.g., host organism) and the type of disease they cause (e.g., murine leukemia virus, MLV), and the rules differ from those of the botanical nomenclature and zoological nomenclature (e.g., capitalization or abbreviation). Other inconsistent practices exist in the fields of biochemistry, but at least the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (IUBMB)11 have detailed recommendation for biochemical nomenclature to encourage scientists to use generally understood terminology in their research papers.

Lastly, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature10 (ICZN) rules the formal scientific naming for organisms treated as animals. There are as many rules as with the ICN, but it regulates which name must be used in case of name conflicts. There has to be a difference to establish a new nomenclature—interestingly, the ICZN uses a trinomen, that is, subspecies have a name composed of three names, while taxa at a rank above species have only a uninominal (single) name. No matter your life sciences discipline, your target journal’s “About Us” and “Guide for Authors” sections are as varied and complicated as trying to explain the different nomenclatures. But worry not, Editage’s Publication Support services include a professional formatting service that will help you have a submission-ready manuscript or English editing with a scientific review and thorough checking of the scientific significance of your work––including those of scientific names.

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