We address three fundamental questions: What does it mean for an entity to be living? What is the role of inter-organismic collaboration in evolution? What is a biological individual? Our central argument is that life arises when lineage-forming entities collaborate in metabolism. By conceiving of metabolism as a collaborative process performed by functional wholes, which are associations of a variety of lineage-forming entities, we avoid the standard tension between reproduction and metabolism in discussions of life – a tension particularly evident (...) in discussions of whether viruses are alive. Our perspective assumes no sharp distinction between life and non-life, and does not equate life exclusively with cellular or organismal status. We reach this conclusion through an analysis of the capabilities of a spectrum of biological entities, in which we include the pivotal case of viruses as well as prions, plasmids, organelles, intracellular and extracellular symbionts, unicellular and multicellular life-forms. The usual criterion for classifying many of the entities of our continuum as non-living is autonomy. This emphasis on autonomy is problematic, however, because even paradigmatic biological individuals, such as large animals, are dependent on symbiotic associations with many other organisms. These composite individuals constitute the metabolic wholes on which selection acts. Finally, our account treats cooperation and competition not as polar opposites but as points on a continuum of collaboration. We suggest that competitive relations are a transitional state, with multi-lineage metabolic wholes eventually outcompeting selfish competitors, and that this process sometimes leads to the emergence of new types or levels of wholes. Our view of life as a continuum of variably structured collaborative systems leaves open the possibility that a variety of forms of organized matter – from chemical systems to ecosystems – might be usefully understood as living entities. (shrink)
Microbiota-gut-brain research is a fast-growing field of inquiry with important implications for how human brain function and behaviour are understood. Researchers manipulate gut microbes to reveal connections between intestinal microbiota and normal brain functions or pathological states. Many claims are made about causal relationships between gut microbiota and human behaviour. By uncovering these relationships, MGB research aims to offer new explanations of mental health and potential avenues of treatment. So far, limited evaluation has been made of MGB's methods and its (...) core experimental findings, many of which are extensively reiterated in copious reviews of the field. These factors, plus the self-help potential of MGB, have combined to encourage uncritical public uptake of MGB discoveries. Both social and professional media focus on the potential for dietary intervention in mental health, and causal relationships are assumed to be established. Our target article has two main aims. One is to examine critically the core practices and findings of experimental MGB research and to raise questions about them for brain and behavioural scientists who may not be familiar with the field. The other is to challenge the way in which MGB findings are presented. Our positive goal is to suggest how current problems and weaknesses may be addressed, in order for both scientific and public audiences to gain a clearer picture of MGB research and its strengths and limitations. (shrink)
Understanding how scientific activities use naming stories to achieve disciplinary status is important not only for insight into the past, but for evaluating current claims that new disciplines are emerging. In order to gain a historical understanding of how new disciplines develop in relation to these baptismal narratives, we compare two recently formed disciplines, systems biology and genomics, with two earlier related life sciences, genetics and molecular biology. These four disciplines span the twentieth century, a period in which the processes (...) of disciplinary demarcation fundamentally changed from those characteristic of the nineteenth century. We outline how the establishment of each discipline relies upon an interplay of factors that include paradigmatic achievements, technological innovation, and social formations. Our focus, however, is the baptism stories that give the new discipline a founding narrative and articulate core problems, general approaches and constitutive methods. The highly plastic process of achieving disciplinary identity is further marked by the openness of disciplinary definition, tension between technological possibilities and the ways in which scientific issues are conceived and approached, synthesis of reductive and integrative strategies, and complex social interactions. The importance – albeit highly variable – of naming stories in these four cases indicates the scope for future studies that focus on failed disciplines or competing names. Further attention to disciplinary histories could, we suggest, give us richer insight into scientific development. (shrink)
Systems biology is the rapidly growing and heavily funded successor science to genomics. Its mission is to integrate extensive bodies of molecular data into a detailed mathematical understanding of all life processes, with an ultimate view to their prediction and control. Despite its high profile and widespread practice, there has so far been almost no bioethical attention paid to systems biology and its potential social consequences. We outline some of systems biology's most important socioethical issues by contrasting the concept of (...) systems as dynamic processes against the common static interpretation of genomes. New issues arise around systems biology's capacities for in silico testing, changing cultural understandings of life, synthetic biology, and commercialization. We advocate an interdisciplinary and interactive approach that integrates social and philosophical analysis and engages closely with the science. Overall, we argue that systems biology socioethics could stimulate new ways of thinking about socioethical studies of life sciences. (shrink)
Ecology is usually described as the study of organisms interacting with one another and their environments. From this view of ecology, viruses – not usually considered to be organisms – would merely be part of the environment. Since the late 1980s, however, a growing stream of micrographic, experimental, molecular, and model-based (theoretical) research has been investigating how and why viruses should be understood as ecological actors of the most important sort. Viruses, especially phage, have been revealed as participants in the (...) planet's most crucial food webs, even though viruses technically consume nothing (they do not metabolize by themselves). Even more impressively, viruses have been identified as regulators of planetary biogeochemistry, in which they control cycles such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus – cycles on which all life depends. Although much biogeochemical research black-boxes the entities filling functional roles, it is useful to focus a little more closely to understand how viruses can be held responsible for the global processes of life. This paper will give a brief overview of the history of virus ecology and tease out the implications of large-scale ecological modelling with viruses. This analysis suggests that viruses should be conceptualized as ecological actors that are at least comparable and possibly equal to organismal actors. Ecological agency can therefore be distinguished from standard interpretations of biological agency. (shrink)
Microbial model systems have a long history of fruitful use in fields that include evolution and ecology. In order to develop further insight into modelling practice, we examine how the competitive exclusion and coexistence of competing species have been modelled mathematically and materially over the course of a long research history. In particular, we investigate how microbial models of these dynamics interact with mathematical or computational models of the same phenomena. Our cases illuminate the ways in which microbial systems and (...) equations work as models, and what happens when they generate inconsistent findings about shared targets. We reveal an iterative strategy of comparative modelling in different media, and suggest reasons why microbial models have a special degree of epistemic tractability in multimodel inquiry. (shrink)
Our analysis of microbiota-gut-brain research took MGB to task for some of its methods, concepts, and interpretations. Commentators then raised numerous issues about the neuroscientific and microbiome aspects of MGB and how it can be understood as a field. We respond by addressing the dimensionality and causal focus of MGB.