Scientific names of microorganisms: Why should you care about taxonomy?

Scientists have discovered an incredible amount of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast or microalgae. To differentiate them from each other, they name them scientifically following strict taxonomic rules. But why should you care about the scientific names of microorganisms and where can you find this kind of information?

You may know that the scientific names of microorganisms can evolve over time. If you are not aware of this, check out our blog on the definition of taxonomy and why it evolves over time.

When your research and development projects involve the use of microbes, you have to get your head around taxonomy. Why and how? This is what we discuss in this blog.

Three reasons why it is essential to verify the scientific name(s) of microorganisms

Far from being a waste of time, checking out all the synonyms used to name the microbes you are studying is essential. It will allow you to avoid confusion or missing information. It may even help you to tackle some obstacles with regulations.

Avoid confusion

Certain microorganisms possess a common name to describe their usage, their origin or behaviour. One well-known example is ‘baker’s yeast’.

Did you know that the baker’s yeast, whose scientific name is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is also commonly called “brewer’s yeast”?

Vintage copper kettle in brewery – Belgium

Did you also know that it is common to see “baker’s yeast” confused with “baking powder”? This is generally due to a lack of knowledge about breadmaking. It may also be the result of the popular use of the name “chemical yeast” (also called “baking powder” or “raising agent”).

There is little chance of finding this kind of mistakes in patents or scientific publications, exception made for some rare mistranslations (generally of Asiatic languages).  But when performing a prior art search for patentability, for example, all types of documents in the public realm must be searched. This is when you risk encountering such imprecise vocabulary.

Therefore, I would always recommend including the full scientific names of microorganisms in your literature review.

Names that relate to the end-use or inexact popular science demonstrate the need to be precise at different levels with the names of microorganisms that we study.

Be ‘exhaustive’ in your literature review

If you have already tried researching scientific papers or patents in databases (free or paid), you will no doubt have noticed that using precise keywords is crucial to compiling a thorough bibliography.

When you undertake a literature review including the concept of microorganism, it’s essential to research the evolution in naming microorganisms beforehand.

Let’s return to our example Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

In 1923, Henri Boulard isolated a yeast strain called Saccharomyces boulardii, which is nowadays commercialised as a probiotic. This strain has been defined variously along taxonomic, metabolic and genetic lines. Then, with the evolution in techniques to identify microorganisms, researchers noticed that Saccharomyces boulardii shares more than 99% of genetic similarities with Saccharomyces cerevisiae whilst displaying different characteristics (phenotype).

Human health & wellbeing – Probiotic capsules

Since then, the debate continues as to whether Saccharomyces boulardii is a distinct species or a subspecies of Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

So, how does this impact your literature research?

If you limit your keyword search to « Saccharomyces cerevisiae boulardii », you may miss documents referring to this same strain in the following ways :

  • « Saccharomyces cerevisiae var boulardii »
  • « Saccharomyces boulardii »
  • « S. cerevisiae boulardii » (it is customary to use the first letter of the genus of microorganism)
  • « S. cerevisiae var boulardii »
  • « S. boulardii »
  • « boulardii »

If you analyse the development in taxonomy of the microorganisms you study, it is very likely that you will find a list of synonyms to use in your own literature research.

A matter of regulations

In agribusiness as in health and nutrition applications, adding microorganisms to products coming into direct and indirect contact with humans is highly regulated.

Let’s imagine that your company has exploitation rights to a microorganism which looks promising for food applications. Nevertheless, this microorganism forms part of a regulated list which prevents you from applying it to foodstuffs. You may have to spend time and money compiling regulatory documents with no certainty of success.

Researching the taxonomy can decide the fate of your R&D or New Product Development projects.

A comprehensive taxonomic analysis could be beneficial to your project by:

  • Proving that a microorganism belongs to a species or a genus permitted for nutrition
  • Detecting any public document stating the consumption of a microorganism by the general population before the regulation in place
  • Finding any scientific documents citing a microorganism under synonyms and proving it is harmless to consume.

In the end, if you discover that the microbe of interest is not authorised for the application you target, then you’ll have saved time and money by not pursuing this project.

Where can you check out the scientific names of microorganisms?

Now that you know why it is crucial to verify the taxonomy of microorganisms for your scientific research, here are a few online resources for you to start with :

  • Yeasts :
  • Bacteria : EZBioCloud – Fast search engine
  • Algae: AlgaeBase – ‘’ declares that their database is purely meant as an aid to taxonomic studies and not a definitive source in its own right.
  • All microorganism: NCBI – Database that centralises various microorganism and points out other reliable sources of information

You can also check out the online catalogs of strains collections around the world such as the NCIMB in the UK or the DSMZ catalog in Germany for example. You may not find all the required information about taxonomy in these databases but you will access to valuable data to cross-check references.

Although the subject may seem complex and the task onerous, it is worth exploring the taxonomy of the microorganisms you intend to use in your R&D, Innovation and NPD projects. Indeed, you will be able to save time by compiling the necessary information relating to these microorganisms.

In a world where there is never enough time or money, knowing how to embark upon your projects with the right microorganism and/or make use of existing resources for other applications can be a real winning strategy.

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Defoort Consultant is a consulting firm based in North East England, founded in 2017 by Julie Defoort.

With more than ten years of technology intelligence experience, we help biotechnology companies to identify and analyse relevant information about emerging technologies and market trends.