Though naming bacteria is a relatively simple process, in some cases it may become a subject of an argument too, especially when harmful bacteria are named after a particular place By Sachin Jagdale
Naming bacteria after geographical locations is a standard practise. Though there have been instances where bacteria have been named after valleys, rivers, islands, volcanoes, trees etc as well. Hans G Truper, Institute for Microbiology and Biotechnology, University of Bonn, Germany, describes this phenomenon of naming bacteria after a particular locality as ‘localimania’.
Truper explains his point of view, “I have witnessed that naming prokaryotes after localities has become quite a fashion, especially – but far from only – after localities in Eastern Asian countries. A rough calculation from the Validation Lists and Notification Lists published in International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology (IJSEM) in 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004 shows that 11, 13, 15 and 26 per cent, respectively, of all new specific epithets were formed from local names by adding -ensis (-ense). This does not include other (classical) epithets formed after localities, such as hispanicus, indicus and antarcticus. It becomes clear that the slow increase in the percentage of epithets formed from a locality since 1998 has suddenly shown a boost in 2004. That this is not just an intermediate peak is shown by looking through the original papers in the May 2005 issue of IJSEM, where slightly more than 24 per cent of all new specific epithets are formed by adding -ensis (-ense).”
Bringing a bad name
However, the discussion continues over whether associating a microbial bug with a particular place brings a bad name to it. India has been a crucial stake holder in this debate. Bacteria named after the Indian capital, New Delhi Metallo-beta-lactamase-1 (NDM-1) had generated strong protest from the Indian Government few years back. NDM-1 is an enzyme that makes bacteria resistant to a broad range of beta-lactam antibiotics. However, there are examples of such nomenclature like SPM-1 for Sao Paulo metallo-b-lactamase, VIM for Veronna imipenemase in Italy, GIM for Germany imipenemase and DIM for Dutch imipenemase etc.
Dr Yogesh Shouche, Scientist ‘G’ Microbial Culture Collection (MCC), National Center for Cell Science (NCCS), NCCS Complex, Pune University Campus, says, “Naming bacteria after cities is done in many ways. Sometimes a genus or species is named after city (Clostridium punense) or sometimes a strain is named after city for eg: NDM-1. Yes, if the organism is harmful it does bring a bad name to city as was the case in NDM-1.”
According to Dr Girish Mahajan, Vice President, Microbiology Divison, HiMedia Laboratories, there is nothing like bad name or reputation to that city due to using its name for microbe. On the contrary, he points out that the city becomes important destination for researchers.
“It becomes a land mark for identification for first discovery of that new microbe. Further, if the same so called ‘bad’ new microbe is isolated and identified with statistically significant frequency in that particular geographical region then that region becomes medically significant to take necessary remedial actions,” opines Mahajan.
However, Dr Hemant J Purohit, Chief Scientist and Head, Environmental Genomics Division, National Environmental Engineering, Research Institute, NEERI, CSIR, Nagpur, agrees to the fact that the city gets a bad reputation if it is named after a harmful bacteria. He says, “Yes, it can or sometimes it is seen that city has got the bad name.”
It is always believed that besides affecting the social status, finding a bug in a particular region may affect its economics as well. For example, when NDM-1 was identified in New Delhi, it had considerably affected its medical tourism industry.
Mahajan says, “If the ‘bad’ microbe which has been named after that geographical region is found in such a statistically significant amount that it has become main etiology of particular disease/ spoilage causing in that area then its medical alert to take Save Or Suicide (SOS) remedial actions over it to prevent further spread or infections. It will surely have economical impact on the region. Tourism industry will perhaps be the biggest loser in this scenario.”
Rules are ‘ruled out’?
To avoid the controversies associated with naming bacteria after a place, should there be a particular rule for this? Dr Purohit has his own reservations in this regard. He says, “Why should the bacteria be named after a city? Since, a bacterium is host or ecosystem specific it has nothing to do with the city.”
According to Shouche, it is very difficult to frame a rule in this regard as this requires a certain amount of data generated prior to naming and this does not happen. He informs, “Name is given first and then the data is collected.”
Mahajan says, “As such there is no such rule over what the genus or species name is to be derived. There are proper ways of formatting those names as species or genus names. However, there are cases where the names are also derived from institutes or mythological names when it becomes difficult to apply similar rules for all such sources.”
A few hundred years ago, Shakespeare had written immortal lines ‘What’s in a name?” and perhaps nobody had ever questioned it. However, as far as naming bacteria is concerned questions have been raised. But, there are examples of beneficial microbes as well that have been named after city like, antibiotic Hamycin which is produced by Streptomyces Pimprina. So, it is indeed difficult to decide on the rules to name microbes. In today’s scientific world a focus should be on what is scientifically proven instead of getting carried away by emotions.