Phosphorus-32 in the Phage Group: radioisotopes as historical tracers of molecular biology

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The recent historiography of molecular biology features key technologies, instruments and materials, which offer a different view of the field and its turning points than preceding intellectual and institutional histories. Radioisotopes, in this vein, became essential tools in postwar life science research, including molecular biology, and are here analyzed through their use in experiments on bacteriophage. Isotopes were especially well suited for studying the dynamics of chemical transformation over time, through metabolic pathways or life cycles. Scientists labeled phage with phosphorus-32 in order to trace the transfer of genetic material between parent and progeny in virus reproduction. Initial studies of this type did not resolve the mechanism of generational transfer but unexpectedly gave rise to a new style of molecular radiobiology based on the inactivation of phage by the radioactive decay of incorporated phosphorus-32. These 'suicide experiments', a preoccupation of phage researchers in the mid-1950s, reveal how molecular biologists interacted with the traditions and practices of radiation geneticists as well as those of biochemists as they were seeking to demarcate a new field. The routine use of radiolabels to visualize nucleic acids emerged as an enduring feature of molecular biological experimentation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-42
Number of pages14
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C :Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


  • Bacteriophage
  • Hershey-Chase experiment
  • Meselson-Stahl experiment
  • Molecular biology
  • Radiobiology
  • Radioisotopes
  • Suicide experiments
  • Target theory
  • United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)


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