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What's in a name? Fly world is abuzz

Proposed reorganization of Drosophila fruitfly genus might throw out its most celebrated member.

Drosophila melanogaster faces genus reassignment. Credit: INDIANA UNIV.

The star subject of genetic research — the Drosophila melanogaster fruitfly — may lose its name.

This is an anticipated repercussion of a decision last week by the London-based International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. It had spent more than two years debating a petition that would have protected the hallowed name while opening the way to a major reorganization of the Drosophila genus, which includes at least 1,450 species.

The commission, which oversees the naming of all species, rejected the petition, setting the stage for a likely renaming of D. melanogaster and hundreds of related species. Among biologists who study various fruitfly species to link genes to traits, the 1 April ruling was no joke.

"Oh my God," says Therese Markow, a geneticist at the University of California, San Diego, who was reached in the Sonoran Desert, where she was collecting fruitflies. Markow, who is director of the university's Drosophila Species Stock Center, added that extensive name changes could "wreak havoc" in the Drosophila literature and databases.

The naming debate began when a US scientist filed a petition with the commission to designate D. melanogaster as the Drosophila type species — the accepted standard of the genus (see Nature 457, 368; 2009). Kim van der Linde, an ecologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, wanted to ensure that the name D. melanogaster would not change if the genus were divided, as she and other scientists advocate. The genus is extremely large, and genetic data suggest that some of its member species are more closely related to flies outside the genus than they are to other Drosophila species.

In the end, the commission voted 23 to 4 to reject van der Linde's petition. The designated type species will continue to be Drosophila funebris, described in 1787 by Johann Fabricius. But the proposal forced the taxonomic world to face the possibility that the genus in its present form may be untenable.

In their written opinions, commission members gave several reasons for voting against the new proposal. Many called it premature because the science about the organization of the Drosophila genus remains unsettled. Others sought to limit the naming disruptions that would occur if the genus were split. Drosophila melanogaster fits within a subgenus called Sophophora, which includes some 350 members. Splitting this group off to form a new genus would require fewer renamings than would be needed if D. melanogaster became the type species for Drosophila. In that case, roughly 1,100 species would be pushed off into new genera.

"It was very difficult for the commissioners," says Ellinor Michel, the commission's executive secretary. "It was a question of celebrity, as everyone knows D. melanogaster."

If a researcher were to use current data to publish a revision of the Drosophila genus, D. melanogaster would probably become Sophophora melanogaster. Van der Linde says that if she and her co-authors from the petition can agree, they may present the case for the change. "Something needs to happen," she says.

But even if the celebrity fly is renamed, Michel noted, it may still be referred to by its original name.

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International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature

Kim van der Linde

Drosophila Species Stock Center

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Dalton, R. What's in a name? Fly world is abuzz. Nature 464, 825 (2010).

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