This talk explores the concept of the ‘model organism’ in contemporary biology. Use of non-human organisms such as fruitflies, mice, and worms has become ubiquitous in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and many major discoveries have been made with these animals. Thinking about model organisms enables us to examine how living organisms have been brought into the laboratory, and tamed and used to gain a better understanding of biology, and to explore the research practices, commitments, and norms that have made such understanding possible. Model organisms are key components of a distinctive way of doing research which parallels broader trends in contemporary biology including moves toward ‘big science’ approaches, particularly in relationship to the large-scale genomic sequencing projects of the 1990s. Model organism-based research also emphasizes projecting data beyond their original domain and establishing their broader applicability, especially to questions relating to human health and disease, and tends to rely on community infrastructures. I focus on what makes model organism research distinctive, and how the use of model organisms has shaped biological knowledge.
Dr Rachel A Ankeny is Professor of History and Philosophy, and Deputy Dean Research in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide, and Honorary Visiting Professor in the College of Social Science and International Studies (Philosophy) at the University of Exeter (UK). She is the incoming president of the International Society for History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) and was co-founder of the international Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice. Her research in history and philosophy of the biological and biomedical sciences explores the roles of models, choices and uses of experimental organisms, and norms and practices in contemporary biology including data sharing, open science, and commons approaches. She recently co-published a book entitled Model Organisms with Sabina Leonelli, available open access through Cambridge University Press.