Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What's in a name?

Drosophila melanogaster, a tiny little fly that is a monster in the world of genetics research. There isn't a biologist that hasn't heard of it, and there are thousands of papers about it. The average person is also familiar with this 2.5-millimeter-long fly. You can see it buzzing around trash cans and unripe or overripe fruit on a regular basis.

D. melanogaster has been used for over a century to study genetics. Thomas Hunt Morgan studied the fly in the early 20th century and was the first to discover sex-linkage and genetic recombination, earning him a Nobel Prize. His work, and the work of his students, solidified D. melanogaster as a model organism. This species is easy to obtain from the wild, small in size and easy to handle, is sexually dimorphic, has a short life cycle (10-12 days), is easy to rear in the lab, has fecund females, has a relatively small genome, and is relatively inexpensive to work on. Additionally, the entire genome has been sequenced and many of the genes identified, and there are a variety of mutants available to purchase for study. Exactly because of these reasons, and how much is known about this species, it is also being used in other fields such as behavior, development, neurobiology, biochemistry, and many others. Much of this research is directly related to human conditions and behaviors (are you listening Sarah Palin?).

However, a recent decision at the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) may reclassify this organism completely. There are about 1,450 species in the Drosophila genus, and the genus Drosophila is part of a larger family of flies called Drosophilidae. As it turns out D. melanogaster (and potentially some other Drosophila species) may actually be more closely related to Samoaia, Captomyza, or Hirtodrosophila. Should this name change happen, will scientists adopt the new terminology? Will we be calling the fly Sophophora instead of Drosophila? Will it be like Brontosaurus to Apatosaurus and Pluto the planet to Pluto the dwarf planet? Perhaps these name changes just take time to take hold.

Kim Van der Linde, one of the very scientists who opened the debate, has argued to keep the name Drosophila attached to the species. A proposal to the ICZN states that the appellation "Drosophila melanogaster" be preserved to prevent confusion in the scientific literature, but that other species in the Drosophila genus be renamed/reclassified as they are less influential.

I can't really say that I completely disagree with her reasoning. I also recognize that, in the age of computers, the titles of already-published papers do not need to be changed, only a new tag added so they can be easily searched. Also, while D. melanogaster is the most widely used of the Drosophila species, to say that the other species are less influential ignores the thousands of studies that research these other species and even compare them to D. melanogaster. In fact, many (if not most) fly labs raise more than one Drosophila species.

Regardless of the name change this little fly will remain a giant in its field.

Here's more on the topic:

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