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Review
, 69 (2), 292-305

The Prokaryote-Eukaryote Dichotomy: Meanings and Mythology

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Review

The Prokaryote-Eukaryote Dichotomy: Meanings and Mythology

Jan Sapp. Microbiol Mol Biol Rev.

Abstract

Drawing on documents both published and archival, this paper explains how the prokaryote-eukaryote dichotomy of the 1960s was constructed, the purposes it served, and what it implied in terms of classification and phylogeny. In doing so, I first show how the concept was attributed to Edouard Chatton and the context in which he introduced the terms. Following, I examine the context in which the terms were reintroduced into biology in 1962 by Roger Stanier and C. B. van Niel. I study the discourse over the subsequent decade to understand how the organizational dichotomy took on the form of a natural classification as the kingdom Monera or superkingdom Procaryotae. Stanier and van Niel admitted that, in regard to constructing a natural classification of bacteria, structural characteristics were no more useful than physiological properties. They repeatedly denied that bacterial phylogenetics was possible. I thus examine the great historical irony that the "prokaryote," in both its organizational and phylogenetic senses, was defined (negatively) on the basis of structure. Finally, we see how phylogenetic research based on 16S rRNA led by Carl Woese and his collaborators confronted the prokaryote concept while moving microbiology to the center of evolutionary biology.

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