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Int Microbiol. 2006 Sep;9(3):163-72.

Two faces of the prokaryote concept.

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Department of Biology,York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


Bacteria had remained undefined when, in 1962, Roger Y. Stanier and C.B. van Niel published their famed paper ''The concept of a bacterium.'' The articulation of the prokaryote-eukaryote dichotomy was a vital moment in the history of biology. This article provides a brief overview of the context in which the prokaryote concept was successfully launched in the 1960s, and what it was meant to connote. Two concepts were initially distinguished within the prokaryote-eukaryote dichotomy at that time. One was organizational and referred to comparative cell structure; the other was phylogenetic and referred to a ''natural'' classification. Here, I examine how the two concepts became inseparable; how the prokaryotes came to signify a monophyletic group that preceded the eukaryotes, and how this view remained unquestioned for 15 years, until the birth of molecular evolutionary biology and coherent methods for bacteria phylogenetics based on 16S rRNA. Today, while microbial phylogeneticists generally agree that the prokaryote is a polyphyletic group, there is no agreement on whether the term should be maintained in an organizational sense.

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