Microbes modeling ontogeny

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23 Scopus citations


Model organisms are central to contemporary biology and studies of embryogenesis in particular. Biologists utilize only a small number of species to experimentally elucidate the phenomena and mechanisms of development. Critics have questioned whether these experimental models are good representatives of their targets because of the inherent biases involved in their selection (e. g., rapid development and short generation time). A standard response is that the manipulative molecular techniques available for experimental analysis mitigate, if not counterbalance, this concern. But the most powerful investigative techniques and molecular methods are applicable to single-celled organisms ('microbes'). Why not use unicellular rather than multicellular model organisms, which are the standard for developmental biology? To claim that microbes are not good representatives takes us back to the original criticism leveled against model organisms. Using empirical case studies of microbes modeling ontogeny, we break out of this circle of reasoning by showing: (a) that the criterion of representation is more complex than earlier discussions have emphasized; and, (b) that different aspects of manipulability are comparable in importance to representation when deciding if a model organism is a good model. These aspects of manipulability harbor the prospect of enhancing representation. The result is a better understanding of how developmental biologists conceptualize research using experimental models and suggestions for underappreciated avenues of inquiry using microbes. More generally, it demonstrates how the practical aspects of experimental biology must be scrutinized in order to understand the associated scientific reasoning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-188
Number of pages28
JournalBiology and Philosophy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2013


  • Development
  • Experimental models
  • Manipulation
  • Microbes
  • Model organisms
  • Representation


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