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 was frequently required 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 is essentially an infrastructure which guides how names are formed and strives to enable a stable method of naming organisms. 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.
Tom turned to these 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 Nomenclature Committee for the Fungi, which is one of a number of international committees that govern nomenclature, eventually taking on the role of Secretary in 2015. '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'. The Committee is primarily made up of mycologists, some of whom have rare skills in ancient Greek and Latin, very helpful in making sure that the spelling of scientific names is correct. Every six years, the rules in the Code are revised at an International Botanical Congress. While Tom initially found the congresses quite abstruse, he gradually began to get involved. Nomenclature doesn't make for light reading, and it's very different to taxonomy, or the classification of physcal specimens which Tom and other National Herbarium of Victoria staff are more familiar with, but is essential to the field of botany 'if we didn’t have it things would be very chaotic'.
That chaos could present in many ways. Different people could simply decide they don't like how a name is spelled or decide they want to come up with their own name for a species regardless of whether it has been named prior, and as soon as that occurs, scientific communication gets complicated. Naming guidelines are also integral for biosecurity, quarantine, and trade, which rely on having a stable system of names. For example, import permits for some fungal and plant products require labelling with a scientific name, not just a vernacular name in the language of the country of origin. Vernacular names vary but scientific names are universal, which you may have noticed visiting botanic gardens overseas.
When individuals wish to change the Code, they must begin the process through formal proposals. These proposals are debated at a week-long meeting during an International Botanic Congress, held every six years. In recent decades, there have been moves amongst the mycology community for a fungi-specific rule book - there was a feeling that the Code was controlled by botanists, and that rules specific for fungi needed to be developed, especially since fungi are a separate kingdom of the natural world. Tom was part of a group of mycologists arguing that it was best to stay with one Code, but adapt it for fungi as necessary, as actually, the main arguments were among mycologists themselves. '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. At the Melbourne Congress, the title of the Code was changed from ‘International Code of Botanical Nomenclature' to "International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants", a simple change that signalled that fungi were embraced by the Code.
At the Shenzhen Congress, Tom led a team of mycologists arguing for the separation of fungi-specific material into a distinct section of the Code, which Tom suggested should be called "Chapter F". Tom was permitted to make a special address to the Nomenclature Session of the Botanical Congress, where he put forward a case for allowing the governance of Chapter F to pass to mycologists, making it clear that they would follow the same procedures long-established for changing the rest of the Code. Eventually, mycologists were given the right to amend Chapter F at their own meeting during an International Mycological Congress. The first time this happened was at the International Mycological Congress in San Juan in 2017.
The Code needs to adapt to changing scientific practices. ‘Something major which has happened since I’ve been involved is 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?' After a committee procedure, it was decided names must be in a .pdf format and have an ISBN or ISSN. '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 x, y or z'.
Though occasionally new rules are introduced which in impact in some way on current names, most names stay the same, however, there are some interesting debates. 'The scientific name for the apple was recently debated, due to the fact it was first described as a cultivated plant, despite being a domesticated form of a wild plant that grows along the Kazakhstani and Chinese border, and was named there before being named differently elsewhere due to a misconception it was a separate species'. Naming issues can escalate to involve geopolitics, as scientists in different parts of the world may prefer different names. In the end, the committees and ultimately the Congress must decide when to make a call. 'If you don’t sort these things out it can run on for years and years, and it needs to be dealt with because the rules are about creating stability and certainty around a given plant by giving it a particular name to resolve these sorts of issues'.
Another big debate at present revolves around DNA, and whether individuals should be allowed to describe new species solely based on a sequence of DNA rather than a physical specimen. Currently, the rules state that a name must be attached to a physical specimen. Some people who have found DNA in the soil and think it’s new might be inclined to name it. 'At the moment, you can’t do that. You can say it's likely the species is new, but you can’t put a formal name on it'. As a result of this and other debates, there are special committees set up which are run to assess whether rules should be adapted.
After each Congress, the Editorial Committee of the Code meets for a week to revise the Code in line with the proposals accepted at the Congress. A few months after the Shenzhen Congress, Tom participated in the Editorial Committee meeting in Berlin, but there was no time for sightseeing 'All day we were in a room going over the Code line by line'. Before the meeting, Tom thought 'I can’t see how we can all agree on the wording as a committee of 16', but he was surprised 'we all worked together very well, and rarely had to vote on the wording'.
Having people from different countries participating was very useful when thinking about how the rules in the Code might work in translation. 'At one point our colleague from Brazil pointed out that the English wording was very awkward to translate into Portuguese, so we had to work on clarifying the English so that it would work in translations'. Thankfully, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria has the resources to enable staff to assist with major projects such as this. 'The Gardens recognize the importance of having these rules established. This institution is contributing internationally to the mycological field'.