Boris Vinatzer, an associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, has developed a new way to classify and name organisms based on their genome sequence and in doing so, created a universal language that scientists can use to communicate with unprecedented specificity about all life on Earth.
In a paper published in the journal PLoS ONE, Vinatzer proposes moving beyond the current biological naming system to one based on the genetic sequence of each individual organism. This creates a more robust, precise, and informative name for any organism, be it a bacterium, fungus, plant, or animal.
His new model of classification not only crystalizes the way we identify organisms but also enhances and adds depth to the naming convention developed by the godfather of genus, Carl Linnaeus. Scientists worldwide have used the system that Linnaeus created for more than 200 years.
“Genome sequencing technology has progressed immensely in recent years and it now allows us to distinguish between any bacteria, plant, or animal at a very low cost,” said Vinatzer, who is also with the Fralin Life Science Institute. “The limitation of the Linnaeus system is the absence of a method to name the sequenced organisms with precision.”
Vinatzer does not propose changing the naming convention of existing biological classification. Instead, the new naming system is meant to add additional information to classify organisms within named species and to quickly identify new ones since the process depends solely on the organism’s genetic code.
Vinatzer’s naming convention would also give researchers the ability to name new pathogens in a matter of days — not months or years — based on their similarities to known pathogens. The proposed naming process begins by sampling and sequencing an organism’s DNA. The sequence is then used to generate a code unique to that individual organism based on its similarity to all previously sequenced organisms.
The advantages to Vinatzer’s method over the Linnaeus system are many.
Coded names could be permanent, as opposed to the shifting of names typical in the current biological classification system. Codes could also be assigned without the current lengthy process that is required by analyzing one organism’s physical traits compared to another’s. Lastly, the sequence could be assigned to viruses, bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals and would provide a standardized naming system for all life on Earth.
Vinatzer has previously used genome sequencing with great success. In 2009, he and a collaborator were able to trace a pathogen that was devastating kiwifruit crops around the world back to China.