On molecular taxonomy: what is in a name?

Exp Appl Acarol. 2004;32(4):301-12. doi: 10.1023/b:appa.0000023235.23090.a7.


Gene sequences of small portions of the genome are often used for premature detailed taxonomic changes, neglecting polyphasic taxonomy, which should also consider phenotypical characteristics. Three examples are given: (i) Recently, members of the genera Eperythrozoon and Haemobartonella have been moved, correctly so, from the Rickettsiales to the Mycoplasmatales, but were assigned to the genus Mycoplasma, mostly on the basis of 16S rRNA sequence analysis. Not only is the 16S rRNA sequence similarity between 'classical' Mycoplasma and these species of Eperythrozoon and Haemobartonella less than that between some other well-recognised bacterial genera, but their biological differences amply justify their classification in different genera of the Mycoplasmatales. Furthermore, the move creates considerable confusion, as it necessitates new names for some species, with more confusion likely to come when the 16S rRNA sequences of the type species of Eperythrozoon, a name which has priority over Mycoplasma, will be analysed. (ii) In the Rickettsiales, members of the genera Anaplasma, Ehrlichia, Cowdria, Neorickettsia and Wolhbachia are so closely related phylogenetically on the basis of 16S rRNA sequences, and for some also of groESL operon sequences, that they have recently been fused, correctly so, into one family, the Anaplasmataceae, while the tribes Ehrlichieae and Wolbachieae have been abolished. Sequence diversity within the 'classical' genus Ehrlichia has led to classifying E. phagocytophila (including E. equi and the agent of human granulocytic ehrlichiosis), E. platys and E. bovis in the genus Anaplasma, while others have been retained in Ehrlichia, which also includes Cowdria ruminantium. E. sennetsu and E. risticii have been transferred to the genus Neorickettsia. 16S rRNA and GroEL sequences of 'classical' Anaplasma and some members of 'classical' Ehrlichia do show a close relationship, but differences in citrate synthase gene sequences, the GC content of this gene, and sequences of the gene encoding the beta-subunit of RNA polymerase, not to speak of the phenotypical differences, do not justify the fusion into one genus. Because of the phylogenetical diversity in Ehrlichia it is recommended that a new genus name be created for the E. phagocytophila genogroup (and E. platys and E. bovis). (iii) One of the conclusions of studies on the phylogeny of ticks of the subfamilies Rhipicephalinae and Hyalomminae, based on nucleotide sequences from 12S rRNA, cytochrome c oxidase I, the internal transcribed spacer 2, 18S rRNA, as well as morphological characters, is that Boophilus should be considered as a subgenus of Rhipicephalus. While Boophilus and Rhipicephalus are undoubtedly close, the obviously important morphological and biological differences between the genera Rhipicephalus and Boophilus are thus overruled by similarities in the sequences of a number of genes and this leads to considerable confusion. Polyphasic taxonomy amply justifies maintaining Boophilus as a separate genus, phylogenetically near to Rhipicephalus. This note is a plea for a cautious and balanced approach to taxonomy, taking into account molecular genotypical information, as far as is possible from different genes, as well as phenotypical characteristics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anaplasmataceae / classification
  • Anaplasmataceae / genetics
  • Animals
  • Classification / methods*
  • Genome*
  • Genotype
  • Mycoplasmatales / classification
  • Mycoplasmatales / genetics
  • Phenotype
  • Sequence Analysis
  • Ticks / classification*
  • Ticks / genetics