Nomenclatural Databases

Robert Robbins rrobbins at GDB.ORG
Thu Dec 22 10:06:43 CST 1994

Dr. Roberts,

What you propose sounds fairly similar to work being conducted at Michigan
State University by Sakti Pramanik, who has been working on a
sophisticated taxonomic database for several years.  This, I think, is the
work described in the Beach et al paper you mention.  I suggest, as the
former NSF program officer who first funded Pramanik this project (i.e.,
not just as a random kibitzer), that you take the time to become familiar
with that work.

Pramanik is a computer scientist who has been collaborating with several
botanists (including Beach, who is now at UC Berkeley) in developing the
system.  As I understand it, Pramanik's system is designed for genericity
and involves supporting some very interesting historical questions, such
as "Get me all species, now classified in genus x, which have been
reclassified at least twice, and which were originally described by
Linnaeus." If I'm wrong on this specific question, I believe I am right in
spirit, which is that the system is intended to manage names and their
history so that nearly any question that can be conceived of taxonomic
names is answerable by the system.

I have copied Drs. Pramanik and Beach in this message (with what I hope
are current addresses).  I would hope that you be able to establish a good
interaction with them.  It was our hope at NSF when funding this work that
it would prove helpful to many groups of biologists.

You are of course correct that the recursive nature of taxonomic queries
requires special attention.

With regard to your thinking about an object-oriented C++ approach,
however, you might want to read "An Object-oriented DBMS war story:
Developing a genome mapping database in C++" by Goodman, in Kim [ed]
Modern Database Systems, Addison Wesley, 1994.  Many people have been
arguing for some time that an object-oriented approach is far superior to
relational systems for handling biological data.  In principle, this is
true.  But building a robust production system requires that the software
handle the logical needs of the data and that it handle the basic
functions necessary of a production database.  Some seem to be finding
that forcing a relational system to handle tough logical problems is
easier than forcing an object-oriented system to behave like a proper

Goodman, another computer professional recruited to interesting biological
problems, reports on some of the practical problems associated with
building a database using tools that are lacking some of the robust
support for database maintenance found in RDBM systems. Anyone seriously
interested in using OO technology for a production database would be well
advised to read Goodman's paper.  (I have asked him if a copy might be
made available electronically, but to my knowledge it is not yet
obtainable in that manner.)

Another paper by Stonebraker et al (1990, The Implementation of POSTGRES,
IEEE Transactions on Knowledge and Data Engineering, 2(1):125-142),
reporting on the development of the PostGRES database, noted that the
system, an outgrowth of Ingres, was to have a rules-based component.
Logically, it seemed that using a rules-oriented language would make that
development easier.  So, the project went ahead, using C for the main
project and LISP for the rules part.  As expected, the use of Lisp made
coding the rules much easier.  But, debugging the LISP-C interface proved
so difficult and other aspects of LISP proved so problematic that
Stoenbraker concluded, "Our feeling is that the use of LISP has been a
terrible mistake for several reasons. ...  As a result, we have just
[rewritten our LISP components in C] to avoid the the debugging hassle and
secodarily to avoid the performance and footprint problems in LISP.  Our
experience with LISP and two-language systems has not been positive, and
we would caution others not to follow in our footsteps."

I know you have not proposed a two-language system, but I note that very
few authors, besides Goodman and Stonebraker, take the time to publish
about negative lessons learned from using certain tools in certain
environments.  These lessons should be carefully attended to, as many
other reports that speak glowingly of the perfect fit between some new
data model or programming language and some real-world problem have much
in common with advertising copy.

As for a Prolog solution, as I understand it, it can be difficult to build
a prolog system that supports multiple, simultaneous users -- a problem
for a database used to operate a functioning collection.  Also, many
prolog systems require that the entire "database" be loaded into memory to
function and this puts some substantial requirments on the workstation, if
a large data collection is to be operated.  Finally, my reading of the
logic programming literature suggests that maintaining large collections
of rules in a perfectly consistent state over long periods of time can be

Stonebraker again (Stonebraker, 1989, Future trends in database systems,
IEEE Transactions on Knowledge and Data Engineering, 1(1):33-44),
commenting on various options for building information resources that
combine data and rules: "The second alternative is to put both the data
and the rules in an expert system environment such as Prolog...  The
problem with this approach is that these systems, without exception,
assume that facts available to their rule engines are resident in main
memory.  It is simply not practical to put a large database into virtual
memory.  Even is this were possible, such a database would have no
transaction support and would not be sgarable by multiple users.  In
short, current expert system shells do not include database support, and
[this option] is simply infeasible."

Pramanik's work was explicitly designed to deal with the recursive nature
of taxonomic queries.  Indeed, it was the challenge of recursion that got
him interested in the project in the first place.  Again, I suggest you
contact him to learn more about his approach.




  Robert J. Robbins
  Applied Research Laboratory
  Johns Hopkins University
  2024 E. Monument Street
  Baltimore, MD  21205

  rrobbins at

  (410) 955-9705 (office secretary)
  (410) 614-0434 (fax)


On Thu, 22 Dec 1994, cgh wrote:

> From: Charles Hussey, Data Manager, Department of Zoology, The Natural
> History Museum, London.
> A Research Leader in our Microbiology Section is to begin a Data Modelling
> Project and has asked me to circulate TAXACOM Subscribers. If you wish to
> respond could you do so direct to Dr. Dave Roberts : dmr at
> The text of his message follows:
> Hello,
> We have some funding to begin work on a nomenclatural database. The problem
> we want to address is how to handle the instability (synonymy and re-
> classification) and the tracking of the history of names. Linked to this is
> the issue of supporting multiple higher classification systems, which is an
> acute problem in fields such as the protista at present.
> If a suitable implementation can be designed, we will be able to recover
> lists of "what species are in genus X" and "what genera are in Order Y
> sensu Jones", including all synonyms and a nomenclatural history. Another
> question that can be addressed is whether a name is valid or available.
> The database will also be able to provide higher taxonomic structure and
> authorities for genus-species names under a chosen system (again, in the
> protista there are several systems in current use).
> This is important for us in being able to search our collections where
> many items are listed under the name by which they were deposited, not the
> name which is currently valid; again an acute problem in groups such as
> the protists.
> The work we have done to date has led us to believe that an object-
> orientated approach (C++) would be most likely to succeed, but it is
> possible that languages such as Prolog might be better. The issue that has
> led to this conclusion is the recursive nature of a synonymy query. For a
> given species, you recover a number of synonyms; for each synonym you must
> perform the same enquiry and so on until the list of names  does not
> recover any new members. Further, the system should check that the original
> name itself is still nomenclaturally valid (has not been submerged).
> Complications occur when part of a set described under one name are moved
> to another name and the original name remains sensu lato or sensu stricto.
> The information comprises of comparable volumes of items (names and other
> textual data) and links between those data. The links can be stated
> explicitly, of course, but the maintenance of such linkage sets could
> become unreasonably demanding as the volume of information grows. There are
> thought to be some 1.8 million names, with an estimate of 20% synonymy.
> The trial group is the Protists (see for example Corliss, 1994. Acta.
> Protozoologica 33: 1-51). If we can devise a model capable of handling this
> degree of taxonomic instability, it should not prove a major difficulty to
> extend it to any other group.
> We would like to hear of any work that has been done in this area (e.g.
> Beach et al. 1993. pp241-256, in R. Fortuner (ed.) Advances in Computer
> Methods for Systematic Biology. John Hopkins University Press). More
> importantly, are we trying to re-invent the wheel? If not, is anyone
> interested in collaborating on this problem?
> Charles Hussey,
> Department of Zoology, The Natural History Museum,
> Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, United Kingdom.
> Tel: +44 (0)71 938 8921 [Direct Line]; Fax: +44 (0)71 938 9158
> JANET: cgh at
> INTERNET: cgh at
>       Nomenclatural Databases                                                 +

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