A team of Adelaide researchers has named a new species of bacterium after a famous South Australian – the SA Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO), Professor Nicola Spurrier.
The bacterium is named Nicolia spurrieriana and is found in lactic acid. This type of bacteria can help limit food spoilage, and also can just sometimes make food taste better.
Spurrier led the COVID-19 response in South Australia and at one stage members of the public showed their support for her decisions by naming her “Saint Nicola”. A range of car stickers were produced.
The research on the new bacterial species, as well as three others, has been published in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.
“We decided to name the new bacteria after Nicola because she led a science-based strategy to manage the pandemic in South Australia to prevent COVID-19 from spreading before vaccines were available,” said University of Adelaide microbiologist Scott Oliphant.
“This allowed us to continue our research when many labs around the world were shut.”
The four species which were isolated from Australian stingless bees are fructophilic – they grow in fructose rich environments.
Spurrier said she was “extremely honoured” to have a bacteria named after her.
“My father, Dr Ross Smith was a clinical microbiologist for the University of Adelaide’s School of Medicine for many years – this would have given him much pleasure if he was still alive,” she said.
Nicolia spurrieriana is very distinct genetically from other types of lactic acid bacteria.
“It has a much larger genome than its neighbours, as well as the presence of unique genes not shared by other lactic acid bacteria,” Oliphant said.
“This means it could very likely contribute to unique characteristics in food fermentation processes, such as in the creation of bread or pickling various foods. We will also test its ability to aid in winemaking … everybody loves unique flavours in wine, as long as they are delicious.”
N. spurrieriana has now been added to a long list of creatures that are named after celebrities. David Attenborough alone has 40 species named after him , while there’s also a Beyoncé horse fly (Scaptia beyoncea), the Steve Irwin snail (Crikey steveirwini) and the David Bowie huntsman spider (Heteropoda davidbowie).
As far as we’re aware here at Cosmos, this is the first time a creature has been named after Nicola Spurrier.
“In most cases, it’s a truly great honour,” says Stephen Jackson, the Associate Director of Collections Enhancement at the Australian Museum.
“Nicola has obviously taken this as a great honour to her, and the great work that she does. Personally, I think it’s really cool.”
According to Jackson, ‘funny’ names like these ones are more common in some disciplines than others.
“Normally when it comes to the species, their name is typically derived from either where it’s from, or something about the animals,” he says.
“For example, if you say something like ‘Bettongia tropica’ – tropica, refers to North Queensland where the species occurs.”
But in some areas – like the fossil world – you do get a lot more joke names.
“There’s a bandicoot, and its genus name is called ‘Crash’, and its species name is called ‘bandicoot’ So it’s scientific name is Crash bandicoot – you wouldn’t believe it, but that’s true. It’s the published name.”
While in the new paper, one of the four bee bacteria are named after the CPHO, the remaining three are ‘normal’ names describing aspects of the bacteria – Apilactobacillus apisilvae, Bombilactobacillus folatiphilus, and Bombilactobacillus thymidiniphilus.
Jackson admits that his preference – after undertaking a revision of the taxonomy names of all Australian mammals – that the name should be derived from some anatomical feature of the species or where it’s from.
“But having said that,” he told me, “there are times when it is absolutely appropriate, like in this particular case.”
Jacinta Bowler is a science journalist at Cosmos. They have a undergraduate degree in genetics and journalism from the University of Queensland and have been published in the Best Australian Science Writing 2022.
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