Surfaces of action: cells and membranes in electrochemistry and the life sciences

The term ‘cell’, in addition to designating fundamental units of life, has also been applied since the nineteenth century to technical apparatuses such as fuel and galvanic cells. This paper shows that such technologies, based on the electrical effects of chemical reactions taking place in containers, had a far-reaching impact on the concept of the biological cell. My argument revolves around the controversy over oxidative phosphorylation in bioenergetics between 1961 and 1977. In this scientific conflict, a two-level mingling of technological culture, physical chemistry and biological research can be observed. First, Peter Mitchell explained the chemiosmotic hypothesis of energy generation by representing cellular membrane processes via an analogy to fuel cells. Second, in the associated experimental scrutiny of membranes, material cell models were devised that reassembled spatialized molecular processes in vitro. Cells were thus modelled both on paper and in the test tube not as morphological structures but as compartments able to perform physicochemical work. The story of cells and membranes in bioenergetics points out the role that theories and practices in physical chemistry had in the molecularization of life. These approaches model the cell as a ‘topology of molecular action’, as I will call it, and it involves concepts of spaces, surfaces and movements. They epitomize an engineer’s vision of the organism that has influenced diverse fields in today’s life sciences
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DOI 10.1016/j.shpsc.2010.07.007
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References found in this work BETA
Michel Morange & Matthew Cobb (1999). A History of Molecular Biology. Journal of the History of Biology 32 (3):568-570.
William Bechtel (2010). The Cell: Locus or Object of Inquiry? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 41 (3):172-182.

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Citations of this work BETA
Staffan Müller-Wille (2010). Cell Theory, Specificity, and Reproduction, 1837–1870. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 41 (3):225-231.
Gerhard Müller-Strahl (2014). Matter, Metaphors, and Mechanisms: Rethinking Cell Theories. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 48:130-150.

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