Binomial Species Names

A place for discussion of the potential adoption of a binomial nomenclature system for virus species names.

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  • I originally wrote the following as an email directly to the ICTV Executive Committee. Upon further reflection, I've decided to also publish it here publically. 


    To whom it may concern,
    I would like to voice my opinion in favor of the "freeform text" option for virus species epithets, as outlined in Siddel et al. 2019 (Archives of Virology). My reasoning is outlined below.
    I am a newly minted PhD and am just getting started in my career as a virologist. I recognize that I'll likely be on the younger end of the distribution of virologists that offer up an opinion on this topic. While my older colleagues may have years of experience to add weight to their opinions, I have stakes. Whatever the ICTV decides on this issue, I will have to live and work with the consequences for the remaining decades of my career. Thus I do not offer the above opinion lightly or frivolously. 
    My support for converting virus species names to Latinized binomials (regardless of the final form chosen for the species epithets) is largely practical. As Postler et al. 2017 (Syst Biol, 66(3):463-473) point out, the lack of standardized binomials for virus species makes it difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate virus taxonomy into many standardized bioinformatics tools. Some colleagues may argue that the reason NOT to use binomials is that, in the age of big data, there are simply too many virus species to uniquely name using binomials and that the current system gives the necessary flexibility needed to make virus species names unique and memorable. You know what computer programmers hate? Flexibility. You know who we need on our side in the age of big data? Computer programmers. Let's do ourselves a favor and try not to alienate and frustrate our bioinformatics allies by clinging to "the way things have always been."
    My support for the "freeform text" option for virus species names epithets comes from a pragmatic understanding of the virological community. We're weird. I don't know about you, but I love trying to explain to non-virologist colleagues why viruses are so cool. They're not living, but they do so much! But they're not just chemicals! And they evolve. And they're tricky: they do so much with so little. And they shred the "central dogma" of biology to pieces: RNA to DNA? No problem! Double stranded RNA genome? Single stranded RNA genome? Circular genomes, linear genomes: you've got it! And I think many of my virologist colleagues share that glee and joy in being just a bit "outside the box" of traditional biology.
    You're going to get pushback on the binomial convention no matter what. People are really attached to their favorite viruses and their names. So why force them into the overly rigid and bloodless options of "Latinized epithets" or "alphanumeric characters in a logical series"? Why not let them have a little fun and retain that "weirdness" that sets virology apart from other biological sciences? Let us be weird, but with rules. 
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