"Official" Nomenclature Lists

SNEATH (P.H.A.) and BRENNER (D.J.): "Official" Nomenclature Lists. ASM News, 1992, 58, 175.

Reprinted with permission from the authors and the American Society for Microbiology (ASM News, April 1992, p. 175).

The International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology, cited in the letter by Sneath and Brenner, is now known as the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

P.H.A. Sneath and Don J. Brenner, Bergey’s Manual Trust, Department of Microbiology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48844-1101, USA

On a number of occasions lately, the impression has been given that the status of a bacterial taxon in Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology or Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology is in some sense official. Similar impressions are frequently given about the status of names in the Approved List of Bacterial Names and in the Validation Lists of newly proposed names that appear regularly in the International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology. It is therefore important to clarify these matters.

There is no such thing as an official classification. Bergey’s Manual is not "official" - it is merely the best consensus at the time, and although great care has always been taken to obtain a sound and balanced view, there are also always regions in which data are lacking or confusing, resulting in differing opinions and taxonomic instability. When Bergey’s Manual disavows that it is an official classification, many bacteriologists may feel that the solid earth is trembling. But many areas are in fact reasonably well established. Yet taxonomy is partly a matter of judgment and opinion, as is all science, and until new information is available, different baceriologists may legitimately hold different views. They cannot be forced to agree to any "official classification". It must be remembered that, as yet, we know only a small percentage of the bacterial species in nature. Advances in technique also reveal new lights on bacterial relationships. Thus, we must expect that existing boundaries of groups will have to be redrawn in the future, and it is expected that molecular biology, in particular, will imply a good deal of change over the next few decades.

The position with the Approved Lists and the Validation Lists is rather similar. When bacteriologists agreed to make a new start in bacteriological nomenclature, they were faced with tens of thousands of names in the literature of the past. The great majority were useless, because, except for about 2,500 names, it was impossible to tell exactly what bacteria they referred to. These 2,500 were therefore retained in the Approved Lists. The names are only approved in the sense that they were approved for retention in the new bacteriological nomenclature. The remainder lost standing in the nomenclature, which means they do not have to be condidered when proposing new bacterial names (although names can be individually revived for good cause under special provisions).

The new International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria requires all new names to be validly published to gain standing in the nomenclature, either by being published in papers in the International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology or, if published elsewhere, by being announced in the Validation Lists. The names in the Validation Lists are therefore valid only in the sense of being validly published (and therefore they must be taken account of in bacterial nomenclature). The names do not have to be adopted in all circumstances; if users believe the scientific case for the new taxa and validly published names is not strong enough, they need not adopt the names. For example, Helicobacter pylori was immediately accepted as a replacement for Campylobacter pylori by the scientific community, whereas Tatlockia micdadei had not generally been accepted as a replacement for Legionella micdadei. Taxonomy remains a matter of scientific judgment and general agreement.

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