The Laboratory Technology of Discrete Molecular Separation: The Historical Development of Gel Electrophoresis and the Material Epistemology of Biomolecular Science, 1945-1970 [Book Review]

Journal of the History of Biology 42 (3):495 - 527 (2009)
Preparative and analytical methods developed by separation scientists have played an important role in the history of molecular biology. One such early method is gel electrophoresis, a technique that uses various types of gel as its supporting medium to separate charged molecules based on size and other properties. Historians of science, however, have only recently begun to pay closer attention to this material epistemological dimension of biomolecular science. This paper substantiates the historiographical thread that explores the relationship between modern laboratory practice and the production of scientific knowledge. It traces the historical development of gel electrophoresis from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, with careful attention to the interplay between technical developments and disciplinary shifts, especially the rise of molecular biology in this time-frame. Claiming that the early 1950s marked a decisive shift in the evolution of electrophoretic methods from moving boundary to zone electrophoresis, I reconstruct various trajectories in which scientists such as Oliver Smithies sought out the most desirable solid supporting medium for electrophoretic instrumentation. Biomolecular knowledge, I argue, emerged in part from this process of seeking the most appropriate supporting medium that allowed for discrete molecular separation and visualization. The early 1950s, therefore, marked not only an important turning point in the history of separation science, but also a transformative moment in the history of the life sciences as the growth of molecular biology depended in part on the epistemological access to the molecular realm available through these evolving technologies.
Keywords Arne Tiselius  electrophoresis  experimental practice  laboratory  material epistemology  molecular biology  Oliver Smithies
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