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Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Lions! Tigers! Bacillus thuringiensis...? Where are the snappy bacteria names?

In line with my earlier post ( on the scientific language and the barrier it imposes, even the names of microbes pose a problem for this. Especially as they're often a mix of Latin, Greek and Science, which just confuses everyone even more. We call Ursus arcticus a brown bear, Canis lupus familiaris a dog, but there aren't any easy familiar words for microbes. Apart from Yeast, the rockstar of the microbial world, things are either referred to by the name of the disease they cause or just by the long, hard-to-say binomial names. Is that fair?
With most animals, especially the big famous ones like bears and dogs, they had 'common names' long before scientists came along and threw Latin words at everything to classify them. This keeps the binomial names as a classification system while allowing them to be talked about by everybody in an accessible way. Microbes, however, were only ever discovered by these Latin-slinging scientists so miss out on having common names that everyone knows (apart from yeast, everyone loves yeast). This puts them at a disadvantage in terms of being known about; often people switch off at the sight of the binomial names, in the same way that my brain automatically glosses over tricky maths (I'm trying to train it not to!).

This leads to the disease name thing; the diseases are the things people are familiar with, so that's how they refer to the microbes. This puts a bias on people's perception of microbes. If all they know of them is plague, whooping cough, meningitis, salmonella, then they're missing out on all the other Friendly Bacteria out there that don't have obvious signs pointing to them! Apart from yeast again. Maybe that's something that can be done to promote the friendly bacteria? Giving them common names rather than disease or binomial names, to make them more appealing or widely-known.

That might help in academic circles too; with sequencing and phylogenic studies increasing at an incredible rate, reclassification is a common part of modern microbiology. I'm always finding bacteria I've never heard of, only to read up on them and find that they've been recently reclassified and I already know what they are. Common names would help here! Classifications could still change freely where appropriate, but common references would remain valid, which would stop people getting misinformed if they'd not heard about the reclassification. For example, if it suddenly turned out that Saccharomyces cerevisiae should be reclassified to something totally different, that wouldn't stop people talking about yeast!

Will anything stop yeast? Can it be stopped? Who knows.

I'm not great with name suggestions though. My ideas normally consist of saying the first thing I look at! So we'd end up with lots of variations on 'mug' and 'coffee'. Maybe we could crowdsource ideas to the public?

Should Bacillus thuringiensis become B-thur McB-thurFace? Vote now!

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