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HOME > PAST ISSUE > July-August 2005 > Article Detail

FROM THE PRESIDENT

The Names of Life

You, members of our community of research scholars and engineers, please help! Nature, with her prodigious diversity of life, reveals herself unlabeled. When generated (born, hatched, budded, laid, germinated or otherwise produced), a being like an infant lacks a name, bar code or other identifier. In the tropics, where life's maximal abundance is, the young offspring (seedling, hatchling, larva, zoospore, myxocyst, swarmer or germling) remains unrecognized and nameless unless scientifically described.

Estimates vary from 3 million to 100 million for the number of extant species, yet fewer than 2 million species of plants, fungi, animals, protoctists and bacteria enjoy Latin binomial descriptions: Genus and species. We, Homo sapiens, have named the life around us: the garden pea, Pisum sativum; black bread mold, Rhizopus niger; the mosquito-transmitted protoctist of malaria, Plasmodium vivax, known to have a remnant chloroplast; the colon bacterium Escherichia coli. Carl von Linné (Linnaeus), never an evolutionist (see page 311), classified all his nearly 10,000 species in either of two Regnae (Kingdoms): Plant or Animal. Fewer than 250,000 fossils—most are "large microbes," gorgeous protoctists: foraminifera, radiolaria, coccolithophores or diatoms—are named in the paleontological literature.

Of some 15,000 named species of prokaryotes (cells that lack chromosomes in membrane-bounded nuclei—bacteria sensu lato), the vast majority are cyanobacteria: oxygenic photosynthetic organisms with chlorophyll a. My call for help is illustrated by these blue-green primary producers, who make nearly all of our food and oxygen. Linnean tradition classified them as plants properly studied in botany. Every naturalist prior to and even subsequent to Linnaeus retains the Plant-Animal dichotomy.

To follow current rules of naming is intrinsically impossible! The bacterial nomenclature code can contradict both the botanical and the zoological codes. The mycologists, fungi experts, have virtually seceded from the plant kingdom and made their own rules. Serpulina is a genus name for a snake, a fungus and a spirochete. No wonder! It means serpent-shape.

Ochromonas danica, a swimming alga, provides a horrible example of confusion at the highest levels. A plant in the phylum Chrysophyta (botany), the same exact organism is an animal in the Class Phytomastigophora, phylum Protozoa (zoology). Logic and molecular data dictate that Ochromonas is neither animal nor plant: It is a protoctist! Those who study protoctists, nucleated micro­organisms and their immediate descendants exclusive of animals, plants and fungi, are disenfranchised. Our allegiances are divided between protozoology, phycology, parasitology, mycology, protistology, plant pathology and myriad other professional societies and their journals. In this age of scientific specialization, no Linnaeus can identify, name, describe and classify even one thousand species. The semantic changes advocated by the Phylo­Code, which uses a conceptually flawed topology of evolutionary trees, will hopelessly augment confusion and disdain for taxonomy. (See for yourself, page 311.)

What to do? I invite you members to enable Sigma Xi to lead an international commission, with eclectic taxonomic experts who have spent their own lives engaged in the study of life in nature. Such wise senior scientists as Bryce Kendrick, mycologist; Peter Raven, botanist; Peter Hirsch and Stjepko Golubic, prokaryotologists; John Corliss, protistologist; and Robert Higgins, zoologist, are competent to unite the plethora of field biologists and genomic/computer experts to conform practices that name and document all of Nature's prodigality.

 

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