International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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FRIDAY, JULY 10  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-1540
Individual papers
Modernity, Biotechnology and Engineering Novel Proteins

“Theoretically elegant, but technically demanding”: Somatic hybridization and biotechnology (1960-1995)

Matthew Holmes (University of Leeds, United Kingdom)

A key barrier to the development of new forms of biotechnology – the cell wall – was removed by plant scientist Edward C. Cocking in 1960, creating what is termed a protoplast. Protoplasts appeared to possess great potential in the breeding of new plant varieties, through the fusing of entire cells of completely different species, complete with their genomes. This technique, termed “somatic hybridization,” was the particle collider of the biological world, fused protoplasts resulting from crosses containing a vast range of genetic data. Fused cells were used to create a tobacco plant in 1972, somatic hybridization demonstrating its commercial viability. This paper will examine the development of somatic hybridisation from 1960-1995, disease-resistant tobacco formed by the process being commercially grown in Ontario by the latter date. Despite some successes, somatic hybridization ultimately proved a low-key biotechnology, lacking the status and international uptake of recombinant DNA techniques. Using this comparison, this paper considers the limiting factors which restricted somatic hybridisation as a commercial technology, from ongoing technical difficulties to isolation from the biotech industry. Another context is relevant to this discussion, as recombinant DNA would go on to be an environmentally controversial technology in the 1980s, an outcome avoided by somatic hybridization, despite higher risks of transmitting negative traits and genetic instability. The question will therefore be asked of why the same challenges were not faced by advocates of somatic hybridization.

Victorian science: The milieu in which it was born, the modernity into which it evolved

Georgia Rae Rainer (Florida State University, United States)

The British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) was founded in 1831 by several prominent scholars of the day including Cambridge thinkers William Whewell, Charles Babbage, and indirectly, John Herschel. This Association changed the practice of science and established the professional discipline that we know today. One way in which the BAAS made a significant impact to the scientific community was by encouraging women to attend the research presentations, which not only increased the role society played in promoting these annual meetings, but more importantly, it opened the door for women to actively participate in the scientific community. Also, the BAAS restored the practice of a question and answer period following each presentation (having been previously discontinued by the Royal Society). This promoted diversity in the BAAS where the benefit of this practice increases the probability of objective science given the different perspectives that critically examine the work. The various commentators have the advantage of potentially different background assumptions that can affect the observations and foreseeable flaws noticed by the particular observer. This is crucial to modern scientific practice and is demonstrated in the values ascribed to peer reviewing and repeatability of experiments. While these changes may seem mild to the modern reader, they set a trend in the practice of science that has become ingrained. The modern scientific community widely uses the presentation format established by the British Association, and in large part, is better for it.

Engineering novel proteins with orthogonal tRNA: Unusual causes that make a difference

Janella Baxter (University of Illinois at Chicago, United States)

Recent defenses of causal specificity in biology have attempted to justify their views by appealing to the explanatory values of biologists. Kenneth Waters defends his account of actual difference makers on the basis that biologists are primarily interested in causes that actually obtain. (Waters 2007) Similarly, Marcel Weber argues that genes are the most specific potential difference-making cause in biology on the basis that biologists are primarily concerned with biologically normal interventions. (Weber forthcoming) Both views express a widely received attitude about the interests and goals of biologists as being primarily concerned with the contingent facts of our world. While I agree with this general attitude about the contingent nature of biology, I argue that neither view fully accounts for the diversity that distinguishes the discipline. By emphasizing the actual or the biologically normal, Waters and Weber rule out unusual causes as biologically interesting. The use of orthogonal tRNA/aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases to engineer novel proteins is one case of unusual causes in biology; causes that are neither actual in Waters’ sense nor biologically normal in Weber’s. Unusual causes can be of significant research interest to biologists for the purposes of developing biotechnology as well as for observing the causal mechanisms of development. (Axup et al. 20012; Ivanova et al. 2014) I maintain that unusual causes in biology provide some pragmatic reasons for why describing the interests of biologists in terms of a single set of values may not be appropriate.