Sex Cells: Gender and the Language of Bacterial Genetics [Book Review]

Journal of the History of Biology 33 (1):113 - 139 (2000)

Abstract

Between 1946 and 1960, a new phenomenon emerged in the field of bacteriology. "Bacterial sex," as it was called, revolutionized the study of genetics, largely by making available a whole new class of cheap, fast-growing, and easily manipulated organisms. But what was "bacterial sex?" How could single-celled organisms have "sex" or even be sexually differentiated? The technical language used in the scientific press -- the public and inalienable face of 20th century science -- to describe this apparently neuter organism was explicit: the cells "copulated," had "intimate contract," "conjugal unions," and engaged in "ménage à trois" relationships. And yet, to describe bacteria as sexually reproducing organisms, the definition of sex itself had to change. Despite manifold contradictions and the availability of alternative language, the notion of sexually active (even promiscuous) single-celled organisms has persisted, even into contemporary textbooks on cell biology and genetics. In this paper I examine the ways in which bacteria were brought into the genetic fold, sexualized, and given gender; I also consider the issues underlying the durability of "bacterial sex.".

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Citations of this work

Adaptation or Selection? Old Issues and New Stakes in the Postwar Debates Over Bacterial Drug Resistance.Angela N. H. Creager - 2007 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38 (1):159-190.
Adaptation or Selection? Old Issues and New Stakes in the Postwar Debates Over Bacterial Drug Resistance.Angela N. H. Creager - 2007 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38 (1):159-190.

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