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  • 1 Division of Parasitic Disease
 National Centers for Infectious Diseases
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
 Mailstop F-13
 4770 Buford Highway
 Atlanta, GA 30341
 E-mail: mle1@cdc.gov

Dear Sir:

Drs. Calisher and Mahy are to be commended for their editorial “Taxonomy: get it right or leave it alone.”1 These two highly regarded virologists make several good points in their editorial, particularly that virus taxonomy needs to get it right. Unfortunately, these authors don’t seem to heed their own advice. In 1758, when Carolus Linnaeus introduced the 10th edition of the Systema Naturae, which combined for the first time, naming of plants and animals, he proposed a simplified binomial name consisting of one word for the species plus one word for the generic name. Thus, for instance, the names Canis familiaris (dog), Canis lupus (wolf), Canis latrans (coyote), and Canis aureus (jackal), each describe a distinct entity but which share certain common characteristics, and this is clearly evident from the scientific names. This is not to say that the species concept is static. In fact, a great deal of vigorous debate currently surrounds the definition of what a “species” is, including how the ability to interbreed is used as part of the definition of the species concept. (This is evident in the relationship between dogs and wolves used here as an example.)

This system proposed by Linnaeus was the basis of modern naming of species. It could include, as needed, a third name (trinomen), a subspecies name. However, each component of these scientific names, whether binomen or trinomen, was composed of a single word. The genus and species name is italicized.

However, when Calisher and Mahy write “.(family Flaviviridae, genus Flavivirus, species Dengue virus)”, they commit several errors and miss the essence of binomial taxonomy: 1) only names at the genus level and below are italicized; thus, Family Flaviviridae should be Family Flaviviridae; 2) the species name should be a single word; and 3) the word “virus” in the species name is redundant and unnecessary. Naming organisms is both an art and a science. One should consult various International Codes of Nomenclature for rules about sex, root word origins, Latinization of geographic and proper names, transliteration of Latin and Greek words, and general recommendations on the formation of names.

As the International Commission on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) wrestles with virus taxonomy, they might do well to pattern their code on more long standing codes, specifically, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), established in 1895, and their International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (updated, January 2000).2 This would provide considerable consistency across biological fields.

There will be numerous issues for virologists to wrestle with as they progress along this path, not only selection of names, but also the concept of type species, priority of names, etc. However, if done correctly, scientific names of viruses will come to have the same respect and status as other scientific names, and, at that point, scientific names of viruses will indeed be names of taxa that tell us considerable about their biology, phylogenetic relationships, and other important considerations.

Indeed, as Calisher and Mahy note, virus taxonomy has a ways to go to reach uniformity with taxonomy in other disciplines. However, having a higher order of consistency, with virus taxonomy on par with other biological sciences, would be good for serious virologists as well as interested observers from other scientific disciplines.


  • 1

    Calisher CH, Mahy BWJ, 2003. Taxonomy: get it right or leave it alone (editorial). Am J Trop Med Hyg 68 :505–506.

  • 2

    The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature @ http://www.iczn.org; and, The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature @ http://www.iczn.org/code.