University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Biotechnological artefacts and the in vivo/in vitro problem

Biotechnological artefacts and the in vivo/in vitro problem

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Biochemical approaches to macromolecules are characteristically reductionist, in that they seek to explain biomolecules in terms of underlying chemical processes and structures. Antireductionist accounts are sceptical of reductionist research strategies because they underestimate the biological context and the role of biochemical function. The in vivo-in vitro problem is one reason for this scepticism; namely it is impossible to perform a chemical investigation in vivo. In vitro biochemical explanations are highly idealised resulting from analyses of pure compounds under artificial experimental conditions.

This paper argues that the in vivo/in vitro distinction is further problematized in emerging biotechnologies. As biomolecules are developed and engineered and as they evolve the clear distinction that we might make between naturally occurring complex macromolecules and those that are the result of biotechnological innovations is difficult to maintain. Emerging biotechnologies often involve man-made or manipulated artefacts designed with a desired biological function. I will use the case of viruses to explore the distinction between natural phenomena as opposed to biotechnologically designed phenomena such as bacteriophages and mRNA vaccines. These cases make the prospects for a purely chemical account of biotechnological molecules look unpromising. Focusing on chemical explanations of biological phenomena downplays the contexts of biological phenomena; because the contexts of production, innovation, and evolution in the case of biotechnological artifacts are not properly considered.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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