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David M. Sander, Ph.D. ( )

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Virus nomenclature: where next?

Dear Colleague,

Please join the debate on virus nomenclature – it needs your input.

In the paper “Virus Nomenclature; where next?” (Arch. Virol. 148: 1645-1653, 2003) I briefly summarized the recent work of the ICTV, which, through its successive Reports over the past three decades, has produced a classification of most known viruses. I conclude however that these Reports do not help most users of virus names. Most users are, probably, non-virologists who use common virus names in their own languages. Some of these users (e.g. doctors, journalists) need to be sure that common names identify viruses correctly and uniquely. They use virus names every day and could be helped if the ICTV produced a database that links each approved virus species with its common name or names. There are also a great many people who are involved in routine diagnosis, who need access to properly authenticated data for each named virus. They need a public record including a formal description of a representative isolate of each approved species, namely a ‘nomenclatural type’ for that species. Finally note that most virologists, when communicating with one another, prefer to use common names for viruses, so the minor gentrification of common English names by the ICTV (e.g. murine for mouse, ovine for sheep with italics and capitals for ICTV-approved names) merely creates ambiguity and confusion as there is no authoritative database linking the original and modified names.

The new more-inclusive goals of the ICTV should be to:

1. include in the ICTV database (ICTVdB) all the original common virus name(s) in all languages where they have been coined;

2. assemble and record within the ICTVdB a properly curated ‘description’ for each named species including a ‘Virus Characterization Scale’ (VCS) rating to indicate the completeness of its description and thus, the status of the species.

3. provide for each fully described virus species a latinized binomial name; all the less well-characterized viruses should be known by their common names;

4. modify the ICVCN so that it is congruent with the other biological Codes of Nomenclature.

The reasons for these proposals are argued in detail in my paper, and largely coincide with views expressed in important papers by Henri Agut (Arch Virol 147: 1465- 1470, 2002) and Lute Bos (Arch Virol 148, 1235-1246, 2003); if you want copies of these papers please email me. I believe that there is no scientific reason for virus nomenclature to be different from that of other biological organisms, indeed I believe it would be valuable for virology to join mainstream biological nomenclatural practice so that specialists and non-specialists alike have only to understand one broad set of ‘rules’ for naming all organisms.

If my proposals are adopted, day-to-day communication by virologists would be by traditional unmodified common names, and only properly described virus species would have formal names of traditional latinized binomial form.

As ‘additional material’ to the paper I have prepared two documents. The first document is a modified version of the International Code of Virus Classification and Nomenclature, and includes an outline of the proposed ‘Virus Characterization Scale’ (VCS). Outlined in it in red are the parts that should, I believe, be discarded and, in green, parts to replace them. In the body of the document, and in smaller typeface, are some explanatory comments about the proposed new Rules, also some Notes that should become part of the new Code. The second document is a ‘description’ of Tobamovirus tabaci that shows how a ‘nomenclatural type’ can be included by bolding within a more general description; it combines data from the ICTVdB and the AAB Descriptions of Plant Viruses and data derived from tobamovirus gene sequences from Genbank.

Please pass this letter to any colleague who might be interested. Any comments and criticisms of these proposals would be valuable, and if sent to me by email I will put them in a “Comments File” also on the Internet, and will attach them to the proposals I will make to the next meeting of the ICTV Executive Committee.

Yours sincerely

Professor Adrian Gibbs
Visiting Fellow
School of Botany and Zoology
Australian National University
A.C.T., 0200, Australia


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