A phage by any other name would smell as sweet – The trials and tribulations of naming your phage

If you’ve ever wandered into the clearance section of your local bookstore I’m sure you’ll have seen at least one book about baby names. Titles like “100,000 Baby Names”, “Cool Names for Babies” and the “The Baby Name Wizard” offer parents with seemingly endless ideas and options for choosing the perfect name for their little bundle of joy. Parents can spend months trying to settle on the right name for their child, and who can blame them? After all, a person’s name can affect how they are treated and perceived, impacting their interpersonal relationships, self-perception, and even their career. 

Naming can be quite a stressful affair.Though I have never had a child of my own, I found myself in a similar situation only a few weeks back when I was trying to find a name to call my phage.

 

Let me explain: For the past semester I have been involved in the SEAPHAGES Phage Hunt at Massey University. Bacteriophages (or phages) are viruses that infect bacteria, hijacking their cellular functions and forcing the bacteria to manufacture more and more virus particles until they lyse the bacteria and break out – ready to start the cycle all over. It’s like a tiny microscopic version of Ridley Scott’s Alien.

As a part of the Phage Hunt Program we collected soil samples to try find phages that infect Mycobacterium smegmatis, a close relative of the tuberculosis bacteria. The hope is that perhaps these bacteriophages could be used to kill these bacteria and treat diseases.

The process was a great learning experience where we got find phage, purify the tiny microscopic viruses, and even extract and analyze their DNA. And the cherry on top: we get to name our very own phage! This was the part I looked forward to the most, what an honor!

 

Created by Digital Micrograph, Gatan Inc.

This is my phage Daegal. Isn’t he just ADORABLE?

Now perhaps I was just naive but I didn’t expect the very first step of the process, finding a phage to be so hard. Despite searching in very many samples (including those from areas where others had found phage), I found not a single phage. Weeks went by as my classmates found phage after phage, and I grew more and more envious. By the time I finally adopted a phage from one of my friends I was determined to keep it alive and give it the best name I could possibly find.

 

The only thing is, naming is harder than you’d think. Especially when you have to think of name no one else has thought of. Unlike a human child, the phages registered as part of our hunt – on the PhagesDB database – could not have the same name as another. If there was already a phage named Brittany, that name is completely out of bounds for your phage. This makes sense, as every species should have a distinct name in order to avoid confusion. Still it is awfully disappointing when your phage, who is clearly a Marcus, has to be named something else. As a result, I scoured PhagesDB to see what names were still available, and I was surprised by what I saw.

ill-name-her-sarah-300x270

 

In the description of each phage, there is a section in which a hunter could explain why they named the phage what they did. As I curiously scrolled through the names, some of the explanations were surprisingly heartfelt. There was no shortage of phages named in honor of children, family, mentors and beloved pets. Names reflected the friendships forged between partner phage founders, honored significant events, and gave a curious insight into the phage hunters themselves. My favorite description was that of the phage “NoodleTree”: In the words of one of the phage discovers “I come to school to grow my noodle.” From a choice of name alone, you can get a snapshot of the friendship between phage hunters. You can read about this and many other great phages at PhagesDB.

 

This made me wonder, what makes a person name their phage what they do? And what does that say about them? In speaking with my classmates, they seemed to feel a sense of responsibility and privilege in choosing a name. My classmate Jo – who named her phage after a Grandmother who she never really got the chance to know as an adult – explained it in a way that seemed to resonate with how I felt. She said this might be our only ever chance to do something like this, name our very own species and leave our mark on the scientific world. We had worked so hard to get here, it would make sense that we would want to choose a name that was meaningful, carefully chosen, and would hopefully inspire in others the same interest in our phage that we had. Though I’m sure the phages couldn’t care less what we call them, what we call a phage often means a lot to us. And when you’re naming a creature you’ve never even seen with your bare eyes, it says a lot about you too.

 

 

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