Organized Session

Multispecies Metabolisms, Organismic Technologies, and Industrialization of Life


Charles A. Kollmer

Princeton University


Evan Hepler-Smith

Duke University


Session Abstract

Living things engage in continuous exchanges and transformations of matter from before birth through death and beyond. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, scientists, agronomists, and industrialists began to develop an acute interest in what came to be termed metabolism, understood as chemical reactions wrought by organisms' vital processes. Changing conceptions of metabolism reflected and reframed the production of agro-industrial commodities that circulated through markets spanning the globe. Laboratory and field studies of cultivated animals, plants, and microorganisms generated novel categories of biochemical entities, including enzymes, hormones, and vitamins. Other scientific inquiries brought into view ecological relationships between organisms, such as commensalism and nutrient cycling. New knowledge of these "economies of nature" set the stage for human interventions, which frequently envisioned metabolic processes in terms of modular chemical inputs and outputs. Often these interventions coalesced in organismic technologies, living things existing in artificial environments built to make them subservient to the goals and desires of humans. This panel, jointly organized between HSS and SHOT, brings together scholars with overlapping interests in the histories of agriculture, biotechnology, industrialization, ecology, experimental models, and scientific organisms. With a critical sensibility honed by contemporary discourses on the ecology of the Anthropocene, we seek to recover contingent histories of how humans reordered interspecies relationships in the name of economic and epistemic forms of productivity, as well as the ambivalences characteristic of these putatively instrumental uses of life.

Presenter 1

Tinkering with "Bovine Alchemy": A Brief History of Rumenology

Nicole Welk-Joerger

University of Pennsylvania


In the early twentieth century, U.S. scientists invested considerable amounts of time and money into investigating the most efficient ways to produce food. Animal nutrition science led the charge with experiments focused on the conversion of inedible substances into desirable animal-based products. Experiments with various animal feed byproducts reduced animal husbandry practices into input-output equations, with the goal of unlocking an ideal system of desired meat and dairy yields using (otherwise) waste products. Early on, scientists considered cattle unique animals in this effort, with conversion capabilities linked to their distinctive multichambered stomachs. As they sought to find methods to better feed cattle, scientists focused their attention on the role of the rumen; its work described as "bovine alchemy." Adding to the current literature on "animals as technologies," this paper explores three key experimental technologies from the history of rumenology that aided scientists in their attempts to understand "bovine alchemy" and manipulate the metabolism of food producing cattle. First, fistulas proved important surgical procedures to explore how animal feed physically moved through an animal's gastrointestinal system. Second, artificial rumens enabled scientists to investigate how rumen microorganisms "transformed" animal feed into human food. Finally, calorimeters solidified the agency of rumen microorganisms as distinct actors to attend to in cattle husbandry.


Presenter 2

Feeding Our Food: Medicated Feed and the History of Making Amino Acids from Fossil Fuels

Hannah Landecker

University of California Los Angeles


In 1934, nutrition scientist Clive McCay warned that children were being raised with an attitude to growth that he called "the butcher's philosophy": the desire to bring animals to market weight quickly and efficiently. This talk excavates the butcher's philosophy of the twentieth century and its consequences for the chemical landscapes of life in the twenty-first. While there has been some appreciation of the addition of antibiotics and hormones to feed as growth promoters, given worries about these as adulterations of the end-product that is milk and meat for human consumption, the systematic remaking of animal feed since the turn of the twentieth century has gone under-appreciated. This paper traces the science of the "animal as converter," with metabolism and feed efficiency as work objects in the effort to make more with less. Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fungal enzymes, short chain fatty acids, arsenical medicines, anti-oxidants, and many other substances are part of this story, many of which were also then used in human food fortification and engineering. As a result of the focus on feed efficiency in the science-industrial effort to promote growth, what we know about many of these elements is confined to how they affect growth, a positive knowledge that has obscured the many other questions one might ask about how these nutritional components affect animals, microbiota, environments, and humans. This paper argues that a more systematic history of agricultural feeding points not toward the industrialization of discrete foodstuffs or activities (cows, farming), but toward the industrialization of metabolism: a major re-articulation of the metabolic interrelations of bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, and humans, in which flows of matter between organisms changed profoundly. Using the example of synthetic methionine, an essential amino acid made from cracking petroleum, this paper explores the industrialization of metabolism in the arc from deficiency


Presenter 3

Cultured Life and Manufactured Milieus: Sciences of Plant Metabolism in Imperial Germany

Charles A Kollmer

Princeton University


In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, German-speaking botanists, plant physiologists, and microbiologists availed themselves of novel technologies, including thermostats, synthetic reagents, borosilicate glass, and incandescent bulbs, to construct artificial niches in their laboratories capable of sustaining experimental organisms. The acculturation of plants and microorganisms to laboratory conditions permitted investigators to reframe and represent their life processes as exchanges of matter and energy. These undertakings were motivated in part by widespread convictions that the conservation of energy applied generally, not just to inanimate matter, but also to living cells, tissues, organs, and bodies. To show that all forms of energy were interchangeable, researchers employed calorimeters, manometers, and other instruments to measure inputs and outputs of respiration of cultivated organisms. These comparative studies in bioenergetics and nutrition made it possible to distinguish archetypal modes of metabolism from one another, and plant scientists took to using the terms autotrophy and heterotrophy to describe different ways that organisms obtained energy from their surroundings. Such studies also gave license to a growingly popular view that, underlying the apparent diversity of living things, were common physical and chemical features wide-spread or even universal across the living world. Reconstructing researchers' laboratory practices and attending to their discursive habits, this paper argues that their views of life developed in parallel to the progressive industrialization of laboratory spaces, thus contributing to an emerging historiography on manufacturing, commerce, science.



Heather Paxson

Massachusetts Institute of Technology