Fruit Fly Identity Crisis Dividing Scientists

It is an icon of modern science, a species so important to biological research that its official Latin name is better known in laboratories than that of any organism bar Homo sapiens.

Yet Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, which has guided many of the most important genetic advances of the past century, is in the throes of an identity crisis that has divided science.

A ruling by the body that governs the official naming of animals has left the insect in danger of losing its celebrated title, just as scientists are marking the centenary this year of the work that first brought it to prominence.

New analysis indicates that D. melanogaster, which means "dark-bellied dew-lover," does not properly belong to the genus Drosophila and should be renamed Sophophora melanogaster, or "dark-bellied bearer of wisdom." A move to protect its name in light of this research, however, was dismissed this week by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).

The decision has split the scientific community. Some argue that renaming such a well-known species would betray its history and confuse the public. Others contend that preserving the name would require the redesignation of hundreds of other fruit fly species.

It echoes the row after the International Astronomical Union’s 2006 decision to strip Pluto of its status as a planet. Kim van der Linde, of Florida State University, who proposed protecting the D. melanogaster name, said: "The similarity with Pluto is that you are talking about habit, sociology and psychology: these are more important to the name than actual science."

Karen James, a geneticist at the Natural History Museum, said: "As a former 'Drosophilist,' I can vouch for the ruckus this will cause. It is the genus name that everyone uses on a daily basis."

Ellinor Michel, executive secretary of the ICZN, said: "No matter how this ruling went, we were going to upset an important part of our constituency."

For more, see the full story at the Times of London.