Taxonomy Boris Vinatzer
February 24, 2014

Virginia Tech Researcher Proposes New Genome-Based Naming System

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A new naming system proposed by one Virginia Tech scientist proposes moving beyond the current biological naming system and supplementing it with a new classification method based on an organism’s genome sequence.

The new method was developed by Boris Vinatzer, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Science's Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, and he believes that it will create a universal language that will allow biologists to communicate about various types of life on Earth with previously unavailable specificity.

Vinatzer describes his work in the Friday edition of the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, and said that switching to a taxonomy based on the genetic sequence of each individual creature will lead to the creation of a more precise, robust and informative name for animals, plants, and other forms of living organisms.

In a statement, he said that the new system builds upon the work developed by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus over two centuries ago, explaining that recent progress in genome sequencing technology allows researchers “to distinguish between any bacteria, plant, or animal at a very low cost. The limitation of the Linnaeus system is the absence of a method to name the sequenced organisms with precision.”

Vinatzer clarifies that he does not propose changing the naming conventions of the currently-used biological classification system. Instead, his new system aims only to add additional information in order to classify organisms within named species, and to more rapidly identify new ones since the process depends on the organism’s DNA.

A genome-based classification system could be of great use to public health officials, given the ever-present threat posed by biological agents in this day and age. In his research, the Virginia Tech professor used the anthrax strain which surfaced following the September 11 terror attacks in order to demonstrate the limits of the Linnaeus system.

“Weaponized anthrax frustrated officials as the powder found its way to offices in the United States and the ensuing investigation took months for law enforcement to identify the origin of the original pathogen as the Ames strain,” the university explained. “More than 1,200 strains of anthrax — or Bacillus anthracis — exist. Each one possesses an arbitrary name chosen by researchers that does nothing to illuminate genetic similarities.”

However, using Vinatzer’s taxonomy, the name of each anthrax strain would contain information about how similar it is to other strains of anthrax. Using the genome sequence method, the Ames strain used in the attack would have been known as lvlw0x, while the ancestor of this specific strain (which is stored at the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases) would be identified as lvlwlx.

Likewise, the naming system would greatly reduce the time needed to identify new pathogens based on their similarities to other disease-causing agents, reducing it from months or years to just a matter of days. The naming process begins by sampling and sequencing an organism’s genetic material, and then the sequence is used to generate a unique code to that organism based on all previously sequenced organisms.

“The advantages to Vinatzer's method over the Linnaeus system are many,” the university said. “Coded names could be permanent, as opposed to the shifting of names typical in the current biological classification system. Codes could also be assigned without the current lengthy process that is required by analyzing one organism's physical traits compared to another's. Lastly, the sequence could be assigned to viruses, bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals and would provide a standardized naming system for all life on Earth.”

Virginia Tech also noted that it was in the process of obtaining a patent for the new naming scheme. Furthermore, the university said that Vinatzer and his colleague Lenwood Heath, a professor in the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering, have joined forces to form a company known as This Genomic Life Inc. This firm plans to license the invention in order to continue its development.