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"Arabidopsis name"

daemon at net.bio.net daemon at net.bio.net
Wed Feb 26 19:47:51 EST 1997

In his message of 25 Feb 97 ( "Arabidopsis name"), Fernando Migliaccio asks
whether we should or should not capitalize "arabidopsis." He writes that "
the ISPMB established that the name arabidopsis is vulgar, like tomato and
sunflower, and thus it should not be written capitalized and in italics."

Migliaccio shouldn't blame the ISPMB; it's my fault. As Editor of the PLANT
MOLECULAR BIOLOGY REPORTER, I wrote a series of editorials on scientific
writing; one of these was "To Italicize or Not?" An ASCII version, sans ital=
appears below.

I still think it makes sense. So in the REPORTER "arabidopsis" will remain l=
case and roman, at least while I remain Editor (capitalized, roman).

Carl Price
Waksman Institute
Piscataway, NJ 08855-0759, USA
price at mbcl.rutgers.edu
fax: 1-908-445-5735


Anyone exposed to introductory biology knows that Latin binomials are
italicized, the first letter of the genus capitalized and the species lower
case: Escherichia coli, Drosophila melanogaster, Arabidopsis thaliana =8A We=
increasingly in scientific journals, however, the unitalicized terms
"Drosophila" or "Arabidopsis." It is clear from the context that writers are=
referring to the genus as a whole, but to their familiar species, D.
melanogaster or A. thaliana. What is happening?

The favorite weed of molecular biologists has become so commonplace in scien=
writing that the Latin formalism can be discarded. "A. thaliana" doesn't rol=
off the tongue as smoothly as "E. coli," so  "arabidopsis" has simply been
incorporated into ordinary English--at least, ordinary scientific English.

Other than for taxonomy, the rule is that foreign words are italicized in
English: Weltanschauung, de gustibus, nom de plume, =8A There is ample prece=
however, for the incorporation of foreign words into English, whereupon ital=
melt into plain roman: alter ego, chic, honcho, pizza, siesta, troika =8A

We need not look beyond the world of plants for more examples: Starting with=
we have abelia, acacia, agapanthus, ajuga, aloe, alyssum, amaranthus, amaryl=
anemone, aster =8A Each of these flowers are known by ordinary English=
 words, each
borrowed from the genus, and each familiar to every gardener. All English
speakers are equally familiar with gladiolus, iris, and zinnia. Scientists (=
most gardeners) know, however, that a reference to genus and species still g=
the full treatment: as in Gladiolus nanus, Iris danfordiae, and Zinnia elega=

It is equally appropriate, therefore, to write "petunia" or "Petunia hybrida=
but note that "petunia" in ordinary English is in lower case; it is not

Welcoming our favorite weed into scientific English, the REPORTER henceforth
will print its name as "arabidopsis." On the advice of our consultant in Gre=
we offer no recommendations on its pronunciation.


PMBR 12(4):300-301 (1994)

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