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July 10, 2003

Bacterium to be named for GSPH emeritus professor

A dream of many microbiologists is to have a bacterium named after them.

That dream should come true soon for Robert B. Yee, professor emeritus in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH).

Investigators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta recently proposed the name Paracoccus yeeii for a newly recognized organism linked to peritonitis, wound infection, biliary tract obstruction and otitis media.

While Yee himself never studied the bacterium that will bear his name, naming it after him “is an appropriate and fitting tribute to Dr. Yee’s distinguished 50-year teaching career, his mentoring of graduate students and his important research on pathogenic bacteria,” said Robbin S. Weyant, chief of the laboratory safety branch of the CDC’s Office of Health and Safety. Weyant earned a Master’s of Science degree at GSPH in 1982 and studied with Yee. It was Weyant who first proposed naming the bacterium after his former professor.

During the 1970s and 1980s, research by Yee and his students greatly enhanced understanding of the ecology of Legionella pneumophilia, which causes Legionnaires’ disease. “Dr. Yee also did very significant work on the ecology of Shigella bacteria” associated with diarrhea, said Weyant.

The formal christening of Paracoccus yeeii is expected to come late this summer through publication of the new name in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

Robert M. Wadowsky, a Pitt associate professor of pathology and of infectious diseases and microbiology, said: “When you’re beginning a career as a microbiologist, you think that every species of bacteria has been isolated and identified, no one will ever discover another new organism. But then, after some years, it happens and you realize that there are a lot more organisms out there than the ones we already know.”

Only about a dozen strains of Paracoccus yeeii have been isolated, all in clinical settings, said Weyant. “Essentially, all of those strains have come from people, but close relatives of this bug in the genus Paracoccus live in salt water, dirt and mud, so we assume that Paracoccus yeeii is out there in the environment,” he said. “The fact that there have been so few cases of infections associated with this bug indicates that it’s not a real virulent organism.”

The University Times could not reach Yee for comment. But Wadowsky and Weyant said they felt sure that Yee would be thrilled at having a bacterium named after him.

“To have a bacterium or virus named after you — for a microbiologist, that’s a great honor,” said Wadowsky.

When it was suggested that non-scientists might have mixed feelings about seeing their names linked to organisms that kill and sicken people, Wadowsky laughed. “I guess it’s just the way a microbiologist thinks,” he said.

— Bruce Steele

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