Which Fungus was Named After a Children's Cartoon Character?

Clue: No, it’s not Yogi barium.

Over 136,000 students around the world took the National Latin exam in 2012.

None, as far as I know, have so far joined the uBiome team.

However, after researching today’s piece on bacterial naming, maybe we’d better start asking for Latin as a desired qualification from new uBiomers.

You see, bacteria – like all living organisms – are named using the system of “binomial nomenclature” devised by the Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century.

Often referred to as the father of taxonomy, Linnaeus – like other scholars of his day – often wrote in Latin, the universal Western language before French, and then English.

His proposal, which definitely “stuck” was that organisms should be named using their genus first, followed by their species, in a Latin kind of way.

So Pseudomonas aeruginosa, for example, is from the genus Pseudomonas and the species aeruginosa.

It’s a little like the naming system used by Chinese people, where the family name comes first, which would of course make me Wang Huan. (Well, Carmichael Alexandra actually.)

In fact, organisms get names that are generally a mixture of made-up Latin and Greek, with a few scientists having a little fun along the way.

For example, although it’s not a bacterium, a new fungus found in Malaysia was named Spongiforma squarepantsii, after the children’s cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.

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While these scientists were obviously relatively lighthearted (well, they were fun guys after all) bacterial naming is a matter of considerable gravity.

It’s overseen by the International Committee on Systematic Bacteriology, formed in the 1970s, who issued the International Guide of Nomenclature of Bacteria.

As in many scientific fields, bacterial naming has historically resulted in huge and expensive manuals.

“Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteria”, first published in 1923, ran to five giant volumes and nearly 9,000 pages for its most recent edition, equivalent to more than six copies of War and Peace.

Meanwhile, Topley and Wilson’s “Microbiology and Microbial Infections” weighs in at a mighty eight volumes and a hefty $2,830.

When it comes to the names themselves there are fewer genera (the plural of genus) than there are species.

Genera are often named after the way their cells gather together.

Spherical bacteria are called cocci (from the Greek word for “berry”) while rod-shaped bacteria are known as bacilli (from the Latin word for “rod”).

So Staphylococci are a number of cells clustered together: “staphule” means “bunch of grapes” in Greek.

And Streptococci are a number of cells arranged in a chain: “streptos” means “twisted” in Greek.

A phylum that is very prevalent in microbiology is Firmicutes, named in 1978, its name coming from the Latin words “firmus” and “cutes” meaning, respectively, “strong” and “skin”. Firmicutes bacteria are known for their rigid cell walls.

When it comes to the bacterial species, hundreds are named after the scientists who discovered them, which may seem quite an accolade, unless of course the species in question happens to be nasty pathogenic one.

Listeria, for example, which can cause serious disease in humans, is named after Lord Joseph Lister, the British surgeon born in 1827 who was a pioneer of antiseptic surgery.

Salmonella? Nothing to do with fish, but named after Daniel Salmon who headed the group at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who discovered it.

Microbiological taxonomists are certainly not known for their brevity.

Perhaps one of the longest names in the bacterial world belongs to a pathogen often associated with gum disease.

Aggregatibacter actinomyctemcomitans is, appropriately, a bit of a mouthful.

But while you probably wouldn’t want to find it in your oral microbiome, you could be happier (even though, let’s face it, unlikely) to see it on your Scrabble board.

It would notch up at least 57 points for you.


Further reading

Actinobacillus actinomycetemcomitans

Approved Lists of Bacterial Names

Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology

Carl Linnaeus

Discovery Of Bacteria

How do we Name a Bacterium

International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria

List of bacterial genera named after geographical names

List of bacterial genera named after personal names

Microbiology

Spongiforma squarepantsii, a new species of gasteroid bolete from Borneo

Statutes of the International Committee on Systematic Bacteriology

Why is Greek and Latin used for scientific terms