MadSci Network: General Biology

Re: Who coined the terms prokaryote and eukaryote?

Date: Mon Apr 17 14:43:36 2000
Posted By: Dave Williams, Science Department Chair, Valencia Community College
Area of science: General Biology
ID: 951225577.Gb

This turns out to be a very obscure piece of information, Karen, so you 
should not feel bad about your inability to pinpoint the reference. I 
struck out on my initial search and ultimately turned to colleagues on a 
taxonomy list to which I am subscribed. I will use part of an answer I got 
from Ken Kinman, a noted expert in this area, to help answer your question.

"I would agree ... that the first distinction of prokaryotic and eukaryotic 
organisms, using those particular terms, is apparently traced to Chatton, 
1938.  But I don't attach author and date to names of higher taxa (we have 
enough time-consuming nomenclatorial wrangling about that for lower taxa), 
so I can't say for sure.  The first use of the name Prokaryota as a formal 
taxon name apparently dates from Dougherty, 1957 (sorry, I don't have the 
citation). But the concept of a primitive group of organisms without nuclei 
seems to have originated with Haeckel in the 19th Century under the name 
Monera (which is basically synonymous with Prokaryota)."

Prof. Kinman agreed to let me give his e-mail address in case you needed 
more specific information. It is:

The reason this information is so obscure is that the naming of these 
groups was not connected with anything else that we think of as 
outstanding, like Robert Hook's coining the term 'cell' in his famous book 
'Micrographia'. The terms simply developed in the course of the progress of 
normal scientific research.

[Here is another answer for you from Bridget O'Keeffe, a cell biology grad 
student at UC Berkeley: 
I've spent over an hour on the web, and I finally found it!  From the
passage below, I found, "R.Y. Stanier, C.B. Van Niel, and their colleagues
formally proposed the division of all living things into two great groups,
the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes."

When microscopy arose as a science in its own right, botanists and
zoologists discovered evidence of the vast diversity of life mostly
invisible to the unaided eye. With rare exception, authorities of the time
classified such microscopic forms as minute plants (called algae) and minute
animals (called "first animals," or protozoa). Such taxonomic assignments
went essentially unchallenged for many years, despite the fact that the
great majority of these minute forms of life--not to mention certain
macroscopic ones, various parasitic forms, and the entire group known as the
fungi--did not possess the cardinal characteristics on which the "plants"
and "animals" had been differentiated and thus had to be forced to fit into
those kingdom categories. (See taxonomy.)

An authority who took exception to the imposition of the plant and animal
categories on the protists was the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel. In 1866
he proposed a third kingdom, the Protista, to embrace such "lower"
organisms, but his conception failed to gain widespread support during his
lifetime. Some 80-90 years later, Herbert F. Copeland, an American botanist,
attempted a revival of the protist concept, but again without much success.

The basis for a major change in the systematics of these lower forms came
through an advancement in the concept of the composition of the biotic
world. About 1960, resurrecting and embellishing an idea originally
conceived 20 years earlier by the French marine biologist Edouard Chatton
but universally overlooked, R.Y. Stanier, C.B. Van Niel, and their
colleagues formally proposed the division of all living things into two
great groups, the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes. (Prokaryotes--bacteria and
other Monera--are unicellular organisms that differ from eukaryotes in
nuclear and morphological characteristics and are typically of much smaller
size.) This organization was based on characteristics--such as the presence
or absence of a true nucleus, the simplicity or complexity of the DNA
(deoxyribonucleic acid) molecules constituting the chromosomes, and the
presence or absence of intracellular membranes (and of specialized
organelles apart from ribosomes) in the cytoplasm--that revealed a long
phylogenetic separation of the two assemblages. The concept of "protists"
originally embraced all the microorganisms in the biotic world. The entire
assemblage thus included the protists as defined below plus the bacteria,
the latter considered at that time to be lower protists. The great
evolutionary boundary between the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes, however,
has meant a major taxonomic boundary restricting the protists to eukaryotic
microorganisms (but occasionally including relatively macroscopic organisms)
and the bacteria to prokaryotic microorganisms.]

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