Monday, May 21, 2012

A gut bacterium named after Greek letters: Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron

Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron is a Gram-negative anaerobic microbe of the human intestinal tract [1].  The specific epithet of this scientific species name is derived from a combination of the three Greek letters theta, iota and omicron (see example in Names of species section in [2]). Curious about taxonomy, Mark Isaak provides amazing listings of diverse and interesting species and their sometimes odd names, but he admits he does not know why those letters were chosen to denote B. thetaiotaomicron [3].

Jennifer Ackerman writes that this term “sounds like it was named after a Greek sorority or fraternity” [4]. We still wonder why θ, ι and ο? More interesting than its name  is the role this bacterium plays in our intestinal tract. Ackerman reports the latest research results on how microbial genes benefit their human hosts and explains how B. thetaiotaomicron produces enzymes that are not encoded within the human genome. B. thetaiotaomicron “assists” us in digesting complex carbohydrates from plant foods: this bacterium “has genes that code for more than 260 enzymes capable of digesting plant matter, thus providing humans with a way to efficiently extract nutrients from oranges, apples, potatoes and wheat germ, among other food” [4]. B. thetaiotaomicron encodes more enzymes than there are Greek letters for.

Keywords: microbiology, microbial biorealm, nomenclature, terminology.

References and more to explore
[1] Microbe Wiki: Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron [].
[2] J. P. Euzéby: List of Prokaryotic names with Standing in Nomenclature   [].
[3] Mark Isaak: Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature [].
[4] Jennifer Ackerman: The Ultimate Social Network. Scientific American June 2012, 306 (6), pp. 36-43. DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0612-36.

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