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One day, James—our master of microscopes—was out and about on one of his sampling trips, collecting various microbial species from the waters around Warsaw.

When he got home and began to observe his new friends under the microscope, he saw this cool (but also very, very weird) green corkscrew twisting around. Unsure of what this species was, James reached out to his mentor Professor Bożena Zakryś.

Her response surprised him. Yes, Professor ZakryÅ› did know what this species was. Because in 1986, she was the one who named it.

Microbe names are weird and wonderful to dive into because they can tell us so much about both the organism and also the person who named them. For example, they might tell us what details they found most compelling about the organism. Take this colony of diatoms for example.

What’s the first thing you think of when you see their formation? Maybe the fact that they’ve created some sort of asterisk? That they’re almost star-like?

Well, if so, it’s probably not a surprise that whoever named it went with “Asterionella,” the root of which comes from the Greek word “asterion,” for star. Same for the person who named “Heliozoa,” who seems to have been understandably inspired by its resemblance to the sun. Then you have the less astronomical approach, like when an Italian biologist bestowed the name “tardigrade,” which translates to “slow stepper,” upon the magnificent but also, yes, slow-stepping water bear.

But sometimes, the story behind a microbe’sname is more human, as in the case of Paramecium sonneborni, named in 2007 for the late scientist Dr. Tracy M. Sonneborn, who established many of the techniques that shaped paramecium research for decades.

For Professor ZakryÅ›, naming this species was also more of a personal affair. She found it while traveling to visit family in southern Poland, collecting samples from ponds along the way. She’d spent well over a decade working with euglenoids, but she’d never seen a species like this before.

Nor could she recall reading any descriptions that matched it. So she did what any scientist does when faced with a mystery: she dug through the literature, searching through old research papers to see if this little green corkscrew matched any description of known euglenoids. Identifying microbes is a complicated process--we dedicated a whole episode to how we do it, and we’re aided today by the massive amounts of information readily available on the internet.

But this was 1986, an era of nascent internet precursors and of the Iron Curtain. So when Professor ZakryÅ› needed to identify a euglenoid, she started with the library of papers she already had on hand. And if they didn’t contain what she was looking for, she had to hunt through their references to find the titles of papers that might.

Today, that would just be a cue to google the title. But she had to send letters to scientists and libraries around the world to try and find someone who could help her, and then wait to hear back—hopefully with a copy of the paper. This could take months, and the papers she received were often written in a variety of different languages.

But her husband’s uncle Janusz Smulkowski spoke 9 languages—6 of which he taught himself—and he would help her parse through and translate what she read, which included many of the original descriptions of euglenoid species. Janusz Smulkowski passed away shortly before she found this mystery organism. And so, when she was satisfied that no one had described it before, she decided to name it for him.

She called it Euglena smulkowskiana. Of course, you can’t just go around naming things and deciding that’s that. You have to get other scientists on board.

You have to convince them that you’ve actually found something that no one else has named before. So ZakryÅ› went about writing a paper that followed the guidelines established by the designated nomenclature committee. These guides can often become quite complicated because, well, microbes are pretty complicated.

You can’t expect the business of naming them to be straightforward. For reference, the 1990 revision of the International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria required 4 chapters to fully outline the principles behind bacteria nomenclature. It also contains a list of 65 rules to follow when assigning a name, and 10 appendices.

Names, it turns out, are serious business. But even very long and complex naming procedures have had to face the plot twist of molecular techniques, which have a tendency to reveal hidden connections between organisms that seem unrelated. When ZakryÅ› was naming Euglena smulkowskiana, she was relying on what she could see, on the bits of morphology that made it seem more like Euglena and less like other organisms.

But later analysis of the organism’s DNA would reveal what that initial morphological categorization couldn’t, that this Euglena was actually a Phacus—a subset of euglenoid species whose name “phacus” means “lentil’ in Greek, which quite nicely describes the flattened shape that was thought to define them until molecular techniques showed up to reveal deeper connections. So, taking into account some additional nomenclature rules, Euglena smulkowskiana eventually became. Phacus smulkowskianus.

There are services that let you name stars, which sounds quite enchanting. But we imagine that there must be a particular thrill in getting to name the invisible residents of the microcosmos, who have their own mysterious lives and ancient histories. When we asked Professor ZakryÅ› how it felt to name a species, she said that it was exciting.

But was kind of a normal thing for her. She’s been working with euglenoids for over 40 years, carrying out taxonomical verifications on the various species that exist, and she’s never counted how many species she’s named (or renamed) over that period. Well, between all the people involved in making Journey to the Microcosmos, we have currently named zero species.

So an uncounted number accumulated over decades sounds, to us, like a lot. But it also is fitting that the final tally is almost a non-factor to someone who has dedicated their professional career to uncovering and understanding microbes. In our popular understanding of how science gets done, discoveries often sound like singular, dramatic events that trace back through millennia of human achievement.

A person scrawls a complicated equation on a chalkboard. An apple lands on someone’s head. Someone leaps out of a bathtub shouting “Eureka.” But discoveries are also just a regular everyday occurrence, a thing happening out in nature and in laboratories and offices all over the place, all the time, sometimes even when you’re on a trip to visit family.

For scientists, discovery is the job, and like any job, it can be both satisfying and mundane at the same time. In fact, discoveries are often undramatic, advancing our knowledge in gradual steps, like the naming of new species. But they build on each other and build on each other, creating an ecosystem of named ideas and organisms and mechanisms that is always expanding and fueling the next discovery.

Thank you for coming on this journey with us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us. And thank you especially to all of these people, our patrons on Patreon who make it possible for us to make this show. If you want to see more from our Master of Microscopes James Weiss, you can check out jam & germs on Instagram.

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