Mutant Bacteriophages, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, and the Changing Nature of "Genespeak" in the 1930s

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Biology Department

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Research Article

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Journal of the History of Biology

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In 1936, Frank Macfarlane Burnet published a paper entitled "Induced lysogenicity and the mutation of bacteriophage within lysogenic bacteria," in which he demonstrated that the introduction of a specific bacteriophage into a bacterial strain consistently and repeatedly imparted a specific property - namely the resistance to a different phage - to the bacterial strain that was originally susceptible to lysis by that second phage. Burnet's explanation for this change was that the first phage was causing a mutation in the bacterium which rendered it and its successive generations of offspring resistant to lysogenicity. At the time, this idea was a novel one that needed compelling evidence to be accepted. While it is difficult for us today to conceive of mutations and genes outside the context of DNA as the physico-chemical basis of genes, in the mid 1930s, when this paper was published, DNA's role as the carrier of hereditary information had not yet been discovered and genes and mutations were yet to acquire physical and chemical forms. Also, during that time genes were considered to exist only in organisms capable of sexual modes of replication and the status of bacteria and viruses as organisms capable of containing genes and manifesting mutations was still in question. Burnet's paper counts among those pieces of work that helped dispel the notion that genes, inheritance and mutations were tied to an organism's sexual status. In this paper, I analyze the implications of Burnet's paper for the understanding of various concepts - such as "mutation," and "gene," - at the time it was published, and how those understandings shaped the development of the meanings of these terms and our modern conceptions thereof. © 2009 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.

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