Microbiologists have also played a crucial part in our understanding of genetics. Experimental organisms such as Mendel’s garden peas, Morgan’s fruit flies, and McClintock’s corn had already been used successfully to pave the way for an understanding of genetics. However, microbes and viruses were (and still are) excellent model systems for the study of genetics because, unlike peas, fruit flies, and corn, they are propagated more easily in the laboratory, growing to high population densities in a small amount of space and in a short time. In addition, because of their structural simplicity, microbes and viruses are more readily manipulated genetically.
Fortunately, despite significant differences in size, structure, reproduction strategies, and other biological characteristics, there is biochemical unity among all organisms; they have in common the same underlying molecules responsible for heredity and the use of genetic material to give cells their varying characteristics. In the words of French scientist Jacques Monod, “What is true for E. coli is also true for the elephant,” meaning that the biochemistry of life has been maintained throughout evolution and is shared in all forms of life, from simple unicellular organisms to large, complex organisms. This biochemical continuity makes microbes excellent models to use for genetic studies.
In a clever set of experiments in the 1930s and 1940s, German scientist Joachim Hämmerling (1901–1980), using the single-celled alga Acetabularia as a microbial model, established that the genetic information in a eukaryotic cell is housed within the nucleus. Acetabularia spp. are unusually large algal cells that grow asymmetrically, forming a “foot” containing the nucleus, which is used for substrate attachment; a stalk; and an umbrella-like cap—structures that can all be easily seen with the naked eye. In an early set of experiments, Hämmerling removed either the cap or the foot of the cells and observed whether new caps or feet were regenerated. He found that when the foot of these cells was removed, new feet did not grow; however, when caps were removed from the cells, new caps were regenerated. This suggested that the hereditary information was located in the nucleus-containing foot of each cell.
In another set of experiments, Hämmerling used two species of Acetabularia that have different cap morphologies, A. crenulata and A. mediterranea. He cut the caps from both types of cells and then grafted the stalk from an A. crenulata onto an A. mediterranea foot, and vice versa. Over time, he observed that the grafted cell with the A. crenulata foot and A. mediterranea stalk developed a cap with the A. crenulata morphology. Conversely, the grafted cell with the A. mediterranea foot and A. crenulata stalk developed a cap with the A. mediterranea morphology. He microscopically confirmed the presence of nuclei in the feet of these cells and attributed the development of these cap morphologies to the nucleus of each grafted cell. Thus, he showed experimentally that the nucleus was the location of genetic material that dictated a cell’s properties.
Another microbial model, the red bread mold Neurospora crassa, was used by George Beadle and Edward Tatum to demonstrate the relationship between genes and the proteins they encode. Beadle had worked with fruit flies in Morgan’s laboratory but found them too complex to perform certain types of experiments. N. crassa, on the other hand, is a simpler organism and has the ability to grow on a minimal medium because it contains enzymatic pathways that allow it to use the medium to produce its own vitamins and amino acids.
Beadle and Tatum irradiated the mold with X-rays to induce changes to a sequence of nucleic acids, called mutations. They mated the irradiated mold spores and attempted to grow them on both a complete medium and a minimal medium. They looked for mutants that grew on a complete medium, supplemented with vitamins and amino acids, but did not grow on the minimal medium lacking these supplements. Such molds theoretically contained mutations in the genes that encoded biosynthetic pathways. Upon finding such mutants, they systematically tested each to determine which vitamin or amino acid it was unable to produce and published this work in 1941.
Subsequent work by Beadle, Tatum, and colleagues showed that they could isolate different classes of mutants that required a particular supplement, like the amino acid arginine. With some knowledge of the arginine biosynthesis pathway, they identified three classes of arginine mutants by supplementing the minimal medium with intermediates (citrulline or ornithine) in the pathway. The three mutants differed in their abilities to grow in each of the media, which led the group of scientists to propose, in 1945, that each type of mutant had a defect in a different gene in the arginine biosynthesis pathway. This led to the so-called one gene–one enzyme hypothesis, which suggested that each gene encodes one enzyme.
Subsequent knowledge about the processes of transcription and translation led scientists to revise this to the “one gene–one polypeptide” hypothesis. Although there are some genes that do not encode polypeptides (but rather encode for transfer RNAs [tRNAs] or ribosomal RNAs [rRNAs], which we will discuss later), the one gene–one enzyme hypothesis is true in many cases, especially in microbes. Beadle and Tatum’s discovery of the link between genes and corresponding characteristics earned them the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine and has since become the basis for modern molecular genetics.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology