What’s in a name? According to Shakespeare, not much. The bard’s well known lines from Romeo and Juliet answer the preceding question thusly: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
And if Boris Vinatzer had lived in Shakespeare’s time he would have been able to answer that age-old question with a genome sequence.
But more than sweet-smelling roses, Vinatzer is concerned with pathogens that pose a public health risk. Deadly pathogens like anthrax.
And it’s the example he used in a recently published paper in the journal PLoS One to address limitations with the classic, 200-year-old Linnean system of categorizing organisms.
In his paper Vinatzer proposed using a genome-based naming system.
Because the godfather of genus himself did not foresee the advent of DNA sequencing, a process that reveals genetic similarities and differences at the molecular level the Linnaean system can’t.
The Linnaean system is based on phenotype, or physical appearance, the ease at which names can shift according to discoveries of other like-minded organisms, even after biological life forms have been deputized by scientific organizations, is indeed all too slippery, and that can be frustrating for scientists and a potential public health debacle for government authorities.
The Ames strain of anthrax is one strain of 1,200 that exist in the world. It was dubbed the Ames strain for no other reason than researchers mistakenly thought the sample originally given to the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases came from Ames, Iowa. Arbitrary? Yes. Effective in communicating vital information about the organism? No.
This particular strain alone is evidence that genome sequencing has relevance beyond a narrow research audience. It gained infamy as the strain that made its way to locations across the United States in the wake of 9/11. Authorities took several months to identify the Ames strain as such. Had there been a bank of genetic samples to run the strain through, the process would have taken days, not months.
What’s in a name? According to Vinatzer and Shakespeare, sometimes not much, unless you peel back the layers to the very molecular bones of an organism.