9th EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2008
Michel Morange, École Normale Supérieure, France
Michel Morange was trained in biochemistry and molecular biology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He then turned to cell biology, and entered into François Jacob's lab in the same Institute. With Olivier Bensaude, he created in 1991, at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris, a group whose project was to characterise the regulation of heat shock gene expression. Michel Morange received also in parallel a formation in history and philosophy of sciences. His main interest is the history of the transformations of biology during the 20th century - in particular the rise of molecular biology (Michel Morange (1998) A history of molecular biology (Cambridge: Harvard University press).
More recently, he turned his attention to the present transformations of biology, with the rise of new disciplines such as systems biology and synthetic biology, the increasing place of epigenetics, the criticism of reductionism, the growing role of interdisciplinarity, and the reemergence of the question of life (Michel Morange (2008) Life explained ( New Haven: Yale University Press). His present project of research consists in appreciating the true significance of these transformations: multidisciplinarity and the development of new technologies are characteristics common to the present time, and to the years which preceded the rise of molecular biology, but the scientific context is too different to make of the present transformations something similar to the molecular revolution.
The place of systems and synthetic biology in the history of biology
The rapid present transformations of biology are frequently compared to the revolution that occurred in biology in the 1930s, and led to the development of molecular biology. In both cases, interdisciplinarity was favoured, with the entrance into biology of mathematicians, physicists (and today bioinformaticists). New powerful technologies were developed. But this comparison can be fallacious. The state of knowledge is highly different. In contrast, the rise of synthetic biology can be interpreted as the accomplishment of the "naturalizing life" project initiated by molecular biologists in the 1930s.
The replacement, advocated by systems biologists, of the macromolecule by modules - structures of greater explanatory power - has not been so far achieved: the notion of "module" has still to be better defined; presently, it remains a "wishful thinking" object. This does not mean that important changes do not presently occur within biology. We will describe two of them. The first is the progressive adoption, through the development of synthetic biology, of a new epistemological requirement for a scientific explanation to be acceptable: a system is fully explained only when it has been possible to reproduce it; a criterion traditional in chemistry, but radically new in cell and molecular biology. The second important change consists in the increase in narrow links being established between evolutionary and the functional molecular biology. The foundation of Evo-Devo was a first step in this direction. More important is the present invasion of the whole functional molecular and cell biology by evolutionary explanations. Only this marriage between evolutionary and molecular biology is susceptible to account for structures and modes of functioning characteristic of present organisms.