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Problem term: Tobacco

Here at Plant Editors, we like to make sure readers know exactly what our authors mean by a specific word. For example, we generally recommend that authors provide the genus and species the first time they mention a particular plant. This helps make sure that the reader knows exactly which plant the authors are writing about. Indeed, some species have a bunch of common names, going by different common names in different regions. Other species are better known by their scientific name (hello purple false brome, better known as Brachypodium distachyon)––and who uses mouse-eared cress for Arabidopsis (Arabidopsis thaliana) anyway? In other cases, the same common name might refer to two different species.

So, we need to talk about tobacco. Tobacco is used as the common name for several members of the genus Nicotiana, but for many years plant scientists used tobacco to mean N. tabacum, a species famous for being amenable to transformation and for producing the Bright Yellow-2 (BY-2) cell line. Recently, plant scientists have shifted to using N. benthamiana, which many authors also call tobacco. We’ve also seen tobacco used for N. attenuata*.  

What’s an author to do? We like to suggest that authors use “tobacco” only for Nicotiana tabacum and let benthi be benthi––refer to it as Nicotiana benthamiana on first occurrence and N. benthamiana on subsequent occurrences. By the way, if you want to read more about the awesomeness of N. benthamiana, check out Benthamiana rhapsody, Sophien Kamoun’s 2022 blog post about the beauty of benthi, and this Annual Review by Bally et al. (2022) about benthi as a model system. In addition, this MPMI article by Goodin et al. (2008) has some excellent historical detail!

* Bonus pro tip: If you are writing about N. attenuata, do a global search for “attenuate”––if our experience is any indication, you will find at least a few autocorrect errors.

Photo credit: Patrice Salomé


Bally J, Jung H, Mortimer C, Naim F, Philips JG, Hellens R, Bombarely A, Goodin MM, Waterhouse PM. The Rise and Rise of Nicotiana benthamiana: A Plant for All Reasons. Annu Rev Phytopathol. 2018 Aug 25;56:405-426. doi: 10.1146/annurev-phyto-080417-050141. PMID: 30149789.

Goodin MM, Zaitlin D, Naidu RA, and Lommel SA (2008) Nicotiana benthamiana: Its History and Future as a Model for Plant–Pathogen Interactions Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions 2008 21:8, 1015-1026.

Kamoun, S. (2022). Benthamiana rhapsody. Zenodo