- Phage infection proved that DNA is the genetic material of viruses. When the DNA and protein components of bacteriophages are labeled with different radioactive isotopes, only the DNA is transmitted to the progeny phages produced by infecting bacteria.
Figure 1.5 illustrates the results of an experiment in 1952 in which bacteria were infected with T2 phages that had been radioactively labeled either in their DNA component (with 32P) or in their protein component (with 35S). The infected bacteria were agitated in a blender, and two fractions were separated by centrifugation. One contained the empty phage coats that were released from the surface of the bacteria. The other fraction consisted of the infected bacteria themselves.
Most of the 32P label was present in the infected bacteria. The progeny phage particles produced by the infection contained ~30% of the original 32P label. The progeny received very little—less than 1%—of the protein contained in the original phage population. The phage coats consist of protein and therefore carried the 35S radioactive label. This experiment therefore showed directly that only the DNA of the parent phages enters the bacteria and then becomes part of the progeny phages, exactly the pattern of inheritance expected of genetic material (Hershey and Chase, 1952).
A phage (virus) reproduces by commandeering the machinery of an infected host cell to manufacture more copies of itself. The phage possesses genetic material whose behavior is analogous to that of cellular genomes: its traits are faithfully reproduced, and they are subject to the same rules that govern inheritance. The case of T2 reinforces the general conclusion that the genetic material is DNA, whether part of the genome of a cell or virus.