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Microbiol Rev. 1996 June; 60(2): 407–438.
PMCID: PMC239450

Polyphasic taxonomy, a consensus approach to bacterial systematics.


Over the last 25 years, a much broader range of taxonomic studies of bacteria has gradually replaced the former reliance upon morphological, physiological, and biochemical characterization. This polyphasic taxonomy takes into account all available phenotypic and genotypic data and integrates them in a consensus type of classification, framed in a general phylogeny derived from 16S rRNA sequence analysis. In some cases, the consensus classification is a compromise containing a minimum of contradictions. It is thought that the more parameters that will become available in the future, the more polyphasic classification will gain stability. In this review, the practice of polyphasic taxonomy is discussed for four groups of bacteria chosen for their relevance, complexity, or both: the genera Xanthomonas and Campylobacter, the lactic acid bacteria, and the family Comamonadaceae. An evaluation of our present insights, the conclusions derived from it, and the perspectives of polyphasic taxonomy are discussed, emphasizing the keystone role of the species. Taxonomists did not succeed in standardizing species delimitation by using percent DNA hybridization values. Together with the absence of another "gold standard" for species definition, this has an enormous repercussion on bacterial taxonomy. This problem is faced in polyphasic taxonomy, which does not depend on a theory, a hypothesis, or a set of rules, presenting a pragmatic approach to a consensus type of taxonomy, integrating all available data maximally. In the future, polyphasic taxonomy will have to cope with (i) enormous amounts of data, (ii) large numbers of strains, and (iii) data fusion (data aggregation), which will demand efficient and centralized data storage. In the future, taxonomic studies will require collaborative efforts by specialized laboratories even more than now is the case. Whether these future developments will guarantee a more stable consensus classification remains an open question.

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