From genetic to genomic regulation: iterativity in microRNA research

The discovery and ongoing investigation of microRNAs suggest important conceptual and methodological lessons for philosophers and historians of biology. This paper provides an account of miRNA research and the shift from viewing these tiny regulatory entities as minor curiosities to seeing them as major players in the post-transcriptional regulation of genes. Conceptually, the study of miRNAs is part of a broader change in understandings of genetic regulation, in which simple switch-like mechanisms were reinterpreted as aspects of complex cellular and genome-wide processes. Among them are the activities of small RNAs, previously regarded as non-functional. Methodologically, the miRNA story suggests new ways of characterizing biological research that should prove helpful to philosophers of science who seek to develop more pluralistic, pragmatic models of scientific inquiry. miRNA research displays iterative movements between multiple modes of investigation that include not only the proposal and testing of hypotheses but also exploratory, technology-oriented and question-driven modes of research. As an exemplary story of scientific discovery and development, the miRNA case illustrates transitions from genetics to genomics and systems biology, and it shows how diverse configurations of research practice are related to major scientific advances
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DOI 10.1016/j.shpsc.2010.10.011
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