Bacterial Sex Explained: the French Connection

The mystery of conjugation

The mechanism of bacterial conjugation, discovered by Joshua Lederberg and Edward Tatum in 1946, remained a mystery for nearly ten years. Stanford University Professor Stanley Falkow (1935-2018), observed:

I give lectures on the history of bacterial genetics, and I always said that the Americans had the wherewithal to discover sex in bacteria, but it took the Frenchmen to work out all the fine details.

Catching bacteria “in the act

In 1955, American microscopist Thomas F. Anderson, travelled to Institut Pasteur in Paris to catch conjugating bacteria in the act. Anderson later recalled, I documented with Francois Jacob and Elie Wollman the conjugal bliss of bacteria. Somehow, news of this reached the editors of the weekly picture magazine, Paris-Match, and they used one of our pictures to illustrate a story by Ramond Cartier entitled simply, “La Vie,”


Thirty-year old Queen Elizabeth graced the cover of the issue of Paris-Match that published the picture of bacterial sex
Thomas Anderson’s electron micrograph of two mating bacteria.


The picture caption was, ‘Un Accouplement de Bacterie.’ When I objected that very few readers would understand what “Accouplement” meant, I was told to have no fear. They would. How many American readers of Life magazine in 1956 would have known the meaning of the equivalent English word, coupling?

coitus interruptus

The French researchers and Irish physician William Hayes devised an experiment to clarify the steps of bacterial conjugation. Hayes had discovered a strain of supermales, so-called Hfr, that were 1000 times more potent than normal males. When his colleagues mixed supermales with females mating pairs formed quickly. Then, they interrupted mating at various intervals by vigorously swirling with a Waring Blendor. The results showed that males slowly transferred their genes to females in a definite order. The first gene transferred in 5 minutes, another in 10, and another in 18 minutes, and so on: the entire male genome transferred in 100 minutes. The period of mating engagement was surprisingly long: five times longer than the E. coli life cycle!

Sean B. Carrol, Jacques Monod’s biographer, wrote that he referred to this discovery as the spaghetti experiment. He compared the male chromosome to a strand of spaghetti that was sucked up by the female cell. The untransferred portion was broken off at different time points, like a pasta noodle breaks before getting completely slurped up.

The impressive male appendage

Bacterial conjugation begins when the male bacterium sends out a long fiber, the “sex pilus” that ensnares the female and draws her close.

Conjugation begins when the male (left) sends out an appendage to ensnare the female (right).

This triggers the mating bridge, establishing close contact and the formation of the mating bridge. Then the male begins to transfer his long strand of DNA to the female.

Science historian, Thomas D. Brock, noted the significance of the French teams

Discovery: the studies of Jacob and Wollman established a new paradigm for bacterial genetics. No longer could the mating process in in bacteria be considered a normal, albeit somewhat “peculiar” example of conventional sexual reproduction. The bacterial process was strikingly different from the process in higher organisms.”

B. Wright, Elie Wollman, and Esther Lederberg, 1950.


Falkow, S. 2014. Author’s Interview. Stanford University.

Carroll, S. B. 2013. Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize. Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition. Crown Publishing Group, New York.

Brock, T. D. 1990. The Emergence of Bacterial Genetics. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor, NY.

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