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Online database could end taxonomic anarchy

Naturevolume 417pages787788 (2002) | Download Citation



In his Commentary “Challenges for taxonomy”, H. C. J. Godfray1 presents compelling arguments for centralizing and revitalizing taxonomy using an Internet database of all taxon names and their descriptions, integrated with other biologically relevant information. He reasonably proposes that such a mammoth project would need to be undertaken in manageable stages, for example one group at a time. However, he does not suggest any logical starting points.

One obvious group is bacteria. The Bacteriological Code2 already centralizes bacterial taxonomy by ensuring that all name changes are either published in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology (IJSEM) or, if published elsewhere, are validated by announcement in that journal. Hence Godfray's innovative vision of what could be called a 'species bank' could be realized quite easily for bacteria by compiling a database of all current bacterial names, and integrating it with an online version of IJSEM to incorporate ongoing revisions. Given the importance of bacterial taxonomy in fields within and outside biology, such a database would be extensively accessed by 'pure' science, medicine and industry, and might thus be able to attract broad logistical support. Life began as bacteria, and it might be fitting if our comprehensive inventory of life also began with this group.

Although Godfray is correct to say that that current taxonomic codes prohibit “purely electronic description”, the current version of the Zoological Code officially recognizes new names posted on websites as long as five hard copies are deposited in libraries3. However, such technophilia has permitted taxonomic anarchy. The ease of electronic publishing has encouraged some individuals to name electronically a plethora of dubious new species, in groups on which they have little taxonomic expertise (I do not cite these websites here, to avoid drawing further attention to them). The resultant mess will take decades to clear up. A central official taxonomic database, peer-reviewed and managed along the lines suggested by Godfray or by other means to this end, would solve this problem, facilitating rapid information dissemination via the Internet while at the same time filtering out unscrupulous taxonomic practices.


  1. 1

    Godfray, H. C. J. Nature 417, 17–19 (2002.).

  2. 2

    Sneath, P. H. A. International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria (International Union of Microbiological Sciences, Washington DC, 1992).

  3. 3

    International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, 4th edition (The International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature, London, 1999).

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  1. Department of Environmental Biology, University of Adelaide, North Terrace, 5000, Adelaide, Australia

    • Michael S. Y. Lee


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