Taxonomies Without Commensurate Knowledge = Mistakes

Here’s a story from Annalee Newitz of the problems that can arise when a taxonomy created for one purpose and one knowledge community, is used by others for new purposes.

“Since the 2001 anthrax scare in the US, the government here has maintained a list of 80 microbes and toxins that are essentially forbidden to researchers. Now scientists say the list is undermining security rather than strengthening it.

The list is called the Select Agents and Toxins List (SATL), and the microbes on the list are chosen without any input from researchers in a process that is far from transparent. In an article published today in Nature Reviews Microbiology, scientists Arturo Casadevall and David Relman say that the list is hobbling research efforts as well as the nation’s biosecurity. They say that items on the list are almost impossible to get for legitimate research. And in fact, many of the substances are needed for research into vaccines which would protect people from the very bio-attacks the government fears.

Moreover, the scientists take issue with the microbes placed on the list, many of which are chosen based on their taxonomic category. Unfortunately, taxonomy doesn’t always work well with microbes, which can have many different strains of varying toxicity and whose so-called species often overlap. So the list both overreaches and underreaches, missing dangerous strains and including harmless ones.”

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