Virus taxonomy needs a spring clean

Taxonomy It’s hard to talk to people about the importance of taxonomy. Eyes glaze over rapidly, brains focus on wearing white coats with stethoscopes and curing cancer. Taxonomy just ain’t sexy. But it is vital. And if you’re one of the prople who care about science but find it hard to get excited about taxonomy, you need to read this paper, which contains some real bombshells.


Viral taxonomy needs a spring clean; its exploration era is over. (2013) Virology Journal, 10(1), 254.
Abstract: The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses has recently changed its approved definition of a viral species, and also discontinued work on its database of virus descriptions. These events indicate that the exploration era of viral taxonomy has ended; over the past century the principles of viral taxonomy have been established, the tools for phylogenetic inference invented, and the ultimate discriminatory data required for taxonomy, namely gene sequences, are now readily available. Further changes would make viral taxonomy more informative. First, the status of a ‘taxonomic species’ with an italicized name should only be given to viruses that are specifically linked with a single ‘type genomic sequence’ like those in the NCBI Reference Sequence Database. Secondly all approved taxa should be predominately monophyletic, and uninformative higher taxa disendorsed. These are ‘quality assurance’ measures and would improve the value of viral nomenclature to its users. The ICTV should also promote the use of a public database, such as Wikipedia, to replace the ICTV database as a store of the primary metadata of individual viruses, and should publish abstracts of the ICTV Reports in that database, so that they are ‘Open Access’.



Virus type species – that’s an interesting idea. Not sure how easy that will be in all cases.

“Uninformative higher taxa disendorsed” I’m not sure that abandoning the concept of higher level groupings such as orders will make virus taxonomy any more accessible to the unititiated.

I’m slightly disappointed (but not surprised) that the ICTV has abandoned the attempt to maintain the private ICTV database. I like the idea of integrating this information with Wikipedia, but I’m not convinced that Wikipedia is ideal as a repository for taxonomic information.

These are exciting proposals, but not entirely workable in my opinion.


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