Mark Eberhard’s comments are greatly appreciated as they underline the general problem of acceptance of viral taxonomy and emphasize the reasons we published our remarks in the first place.1 The title of our Editorial was “Taxonomy: get it right or leave it alone.” We did not intend that title to indicate, as Dr. Eberhard suggested, that the virological community as a whole should “get it right,” but only that individual virologists should “get it right.”
Dr. Eberhard suggested that we were proposing a taxonomic scheme, but we were not. What we were trying to do is let the readers of this journal know what is the reality of current taxonomy.2 It was not we who suggested italicizing family names; it was the International Committee for Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). In 1966, at a meeting in Moscow, the predecessor organization of ICTV, the International Committee for Nomenclature of Viruses, pragmatically decided to italicize the names of virus families, suggesting, “For many years, the dead hand of Linnaeus has hovered uncertainly over the virus kingdom.”3 In subsequent years, it simply became a reality (not accepted by all, to be sure) that virus family names are italicized. We are not arguing for or against this, simply stating a fact.
Since essentially the beginning of the development of viral taxonomic schemes, in 1971, virologists have declared that they will not follow the rules of biological or bacteriological nomenclature. One reason for this is that viruses do not propagate themselves, as do other life forms. Italicizing family names simply underscores that thesis.
Dr. Eberhard uses the Canidae as an example of proper binomial nomenclature for biological entities. He points out that the Latin species names for dog, wolf, coyote, and jackal are extensions of the genus name Canis. True, of course, but what better example could there be than these canids, which can interbreed and therefore could be used to point out the (perhaps fatal) taxonomic flaw when one uses interbreeding potential in regard to species differentiation? Since we have enough problems in sorting out the viruses, we will not get into that debate here or anywhere else.
As for the lack of application of binomial nomenclature in virus taxonomy, that also is not our fault. Its use has been proposed many times, but the virologic community has not accepted it. Viruses are not easily slipped into a universal taxonomic scheme because there has been no agreement as to what they are, for instance whether they are alive or not. There also has been considerable reluctance to change all the existing names of virus species into binomials
The point is not that we have erred in devising a new taxonomic scheme; we have not. We have been simple messengers for those who do not know or do not understand: authors and editors of journals, bacteriologists, mycologists, and parasitologists included. We simply reported the facts about current usage in virology and suggested to those who refuse to get it right that they should “leave it alone.”
van Regenmortel MHV, Fauquet CM, Bishop DHL, Carstens EB, Estes MK, Lemon SM, Maniloff J, Mayo MA, McGeoch DJ, Pringle CR, Wickner RB, 2000. Virus Taxonomy. Seventh Report of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Wildy P, 1971. Classification and nomenclature of viruses. First report of the International Committee on Nomenclature of Viruses. Monographs in Virology 5. Basel: S. Karger.