He isn't alone in his desire to restore amoebas to their proper sexual place or to grumble about misconceptions of biological sex, including the notion that it's reproductive. (Sex is not reproductive, he says, but rather a reduction of two gamete cells into one—it's mitosis, the duplication of cells, that is reproductive.*)
"We don't completely understand the evolutionary processes behind sex, or even its benefits," says taxonomist David J. Patterson of the Marine Biological Laboratory, who was neither involved in Spiegel's piece nor the study of amoeba asexuality from which it stemmed. "What we need to do is run back down [the evolutionary] tree and study sex from the bottom up, looking for alternative options to sex."
As some biology textbooks and studies continue to sidestep the details of the amoeba and other microbes in favor of focusing on larger organisms, Spiegel sees a tragic irony: Amoebas and their ilk can best position budding researchers to explore the costs of sex, its evolution and alternatives to problems it may or may not solve.
"They are using the wrong organisms to ask the questions [about sex] they want to answer,” Spiegel says.
Biologist John Bonner of Princeton University, who has studied amoebas for more than 70 years, says he has no reason to doubt Spiegel's concerns—even if they are not new.
"Sex is quite common among [amoebas], even though some are asexual. And I think there are probably a lot of people who still don't understand that," Bonner says. "It's definitely worth calling attention to. There are still some very important things to be learned by comparing the presence and absence of sex."
Meanwhile, Spiegel sees wasted funding, time, confusion and opportunities for groundbreaking research.
"You can't understand sex by examining one organism. Let's get people exposed to a lot of weird and very different life-forms," he says. "Let's have a real sexual revolution."
*Clarification (05/11/11): This sentence was changed after publication. The original did not clearly convey that the sentence refers to fertilization in organisms that use gametes for sex.