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What’s in a name? Talking Nomenclature of Fungi with Mycologist Tom May

When Senior Research Scientist (Mycology) Tom May first started working at the Botanic Gardens, he was involved in creating a catalogue of all the different fungi in Australia. 'When you do that, you’re making lots of lists of names' he said jocularly and discussed how he frequently needed to refer to The International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants, which is the law for naming all algae, fungi and plants. The code provides an infrastructure which guides how names are formed and aims to enable a stable method of naming organisms. Tom turned to the rules to determine finicky details so often during his work on the catalogue that he developed a real interest in and passion for nomenclature and eventually, around 20 years ago, joined the committee for the Fungi section of the code and became Secretary.

Though the International Congresses at which the rules are revised every six years. 

see revision of the rules every initially seemed abstruse, but at the congress, he began to get involved and it was a gradual process. It’s an interesting example of how a lot of the scientists here start working on one thing and end up going in random and different directions. I guess I found it satisfying to contribute to this sort of thing’ it does divert away from actually handling specimens and if we didn’t have it things would be very chaotic.

hen there are committees for different groups. He joined the committee, some of whom are Greek and Latin scholars who are necessary to know the names, for the fungi section of the publication 20 years ago, who specifically make decisions concerning the fungi aspect of the rules. He became a secretary and tended to go to the

The International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants is the law for naming all algae, fungi and plants. The Code, and infrastructure for support of nomenclature, is revised every six years, at an International Congress, and when individuals wish to change the code, they need to do so through formal proposals, and then there’s a week-long meeting where changes are debated. Tom May, Senior Research Scientist (Mycology) at the Gardens, looks after the nomenclature committee for fungi. They deal with other aspects of this law. One change which was made was that for many years this was called International Code of Nomenclature for plants, despite fungi being a separate kingdom.
Most of the work in the herbarium revolves around taxonomy, but without nomenclature, it would be a shambles.
There was a move amongst the mycology community for a fungi-specific rule book. Nomenclature is diabolically esoteric, and it would be convoluted to create an entirely separate set of rules for fungi when most of the rules for plants apply. It’s a lot easier if we stick to the one set of rules, but that being said, the team created a separate chapter for the rules specifically about fungi, which Tom May was one of the proponents of and was an author of.
Most people don’t pick up this publication for some light bedtime reading, but if we didn’t have it things would be chaos.
The Royal Botanic Gardens has quite a strong role in this as there are various committees, including for fungi, which is quiet behind the scenes stuff we do that holds things together.
Nomenclature is the business of naming things. If we didn’t have the right names for the different bits it would be chaotic. The code covers the naming of new species as well as any plant name since ‘binomial nomenclature’, the system of naming species of living things by giving each a name composed of two parts, both of which use Latin grammatical forms, was established in the 1750s by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.
This is just the current version of the rules. Sometimes they introduce a new rule in here that does have a slight effect on current names – most names stay the same. ‘For example, things that have happened since I’ve been involved is like electronic publishing. Before that the rules said in order to be considered legitimate, a new name of a plant, algae, or fungi species had to be printed in a book, and then along comes electronic publishing and the internet, and we had to decide how do you regulate that, can you just put it on a website? So there was a whole committee procedure and we’ve come up with something that says it has to be in a .pdf and it has to have an ISBN, because if you didn’t have a rule around that, anyone could just jump on the internet and say I think I’d like to call a new species of plant this or whatever’
DNA is another thing. Some people are trying to describe new species solely based on a sequence of DNA rather than a physical specimen. The rule is you have to have a specimen. There’s a whole lot of principals in this that anchor it and one of these is that a name has to be tied to a type specimen. With DNA people say I don’t need a specimen I just found DNA in the soil and think it’s new. At the moment, you can’t do that. You can say there probably is something new but you can’t put a formal name on it. There are big arguments about this and as a result, there are special committees set up which are run to assess whether rules should be adapted, for example, should it be taken into account that you can obtain DNA from the soil.
If we didn’t have this, the names would be chaotic – different people would say we don’t like how that names spelled, or we just like to make our names up, and as soon as you do that all of the scientific communication gets complicated. Also for things like biosecurity, quarantine, and trade, it relies on having a stable system of names. If someone calls this plant this name, then all around the world everyone’s calling it the same thing. The name of the apple is even up for debate now and so that’s to do with the fact that the Apple’s first described as a cultivated plant but it’s actually a domesticated form of a wild plant that grows along the Kazakhstani and Chinese border and it had been named there without realizing it’s the same species as the cultivated apple, and then it gets into geopolitics because different countries want different names, and in the end we have to say that’s it, we’re calling it this and everyone should just stop arguing. If you don’t sort these things out it can run on for years and years, and it’s about creating stability and certainty around a given plant by giving it a particular name. Naming is about creating stability.


It’s hard work – it’s difficult working with these committees because everyone is in different time zones. A rule which was changed in Shenzhen was that it was decided that the fungi section of the rules would be solely decided upon by mycologists. And that was a matter of actually going there and addressing the group to say you should trust us to make our own decisions – we will follow all the correct procedures and do everything right. It was quite a challenge to get it working - if you want to make changes you need to prepare a case beforehand - we might vote on a proposal at congress but it actually always has to be debated, and there can be a range of issues - for example, at the last conference a guy said look I'm trying to translate this rule into Portuguese and it doesn't make sense, so it's about how it works translated into other languages, so subtle meaning differences can be difficult to counteract.
at the point with mycology, there were a lot of big debates within the community which has been the case for years, and it was important to be seen to move the governance to mycologists so issues could be resolved within that community rather than bringing in outside factors. to write this we all met in Berlin for a week, but all day we were in a room going over these rules line by line with a whiteboard. Luckily, the Royal Botanic Gardens has the resources to allow for this to happen because often smaller institutions lack funding. The Gardens recognize the importance of having these rules established. This institution is contributing internationally to the mycological field. For example, when you bring food in Australia, there has to be a scientific name on it - no matter where it's from, for it to be identified. Local names may vary but scientific names are universal - as you can see if you visit a botanic garden overseas.
It does divert away from actually handling specimens and taxonomy.


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