Friday, 1 October 2010

Naming names

What's in a name? Well, if someone called you by the wrong name you wouldn't hesitate to correct them.
And humans do so love the naming of things. Whole books are written about those individuals who have come up with naming systems for different scientific areas such as Carolus Linnaeus for botany. 

Much effort is spent these days in testing and identifying the name of the bacteria that may have caused an infection. Once the doctor knows what it is then s/he feels able to prescribe the correct antibiotic. Or that's the theory.

But a new paper has shown how difficult it can be to put a name on something as shape-shifting as microbes. 
The genes from one microbe may be quite useful to another nearby microbe - especially if they convey antibiotic resistance - so they parcel it out in a generous way apparently. This is called horizontal gene transfer.

In Nature News magazine this week they reported on the important discovery of the mechanism by which microbes do this, and also revealed how amazingly quick it can happen. Overnight 47 per cent of marine bacteria had taken the genetic make-up of an introduced modified microbe in to their own genetic make-up. Now that makes naming microbes a bit tricky.

Evolutionary biologist Jeffrey Townsend at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, told the magazine: "In order to understand antibiotic resistance, pathogenicity, or the beneficial things that bacteria do for us, we need to understand how they evolve through horizontal gene transfer — knowing about this process can help us live in a world full of microbes."

And most of us want to carry on living in this microbe-crammed world, don't we? I think we need to pay less attention to naming things, and start applying our knowledge to understanding important processes in and around us.

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