Organized Session

Regeneration as a Boundary Concept: Dialogues between Basic and Applied Biology in the Long Twentieth Century

Organizer

Kathryn Grace Maxson Jones

Princeton University; Marine Biological Laboratory

Chair

Jane Maienschein

Arizona State University

Metadata

Session Abstract

Life scientists in the 20th century increasingly attended to potential social applications of their work. This change spanned all fields, spurred on by wars, unprecedented levels of funding after WWII, and the escalation of public and environmental health concerns such as traumatic injury and pollution. Biologists began to study life in terms of complex systems that evolve, develop, sustain injuries, and respond. In this session, three papers will investigate historical dialogues between basic and applied biology from the late nineteenth century to the present. They will focus on a phenomenon appearing in all biological systems that respond to injury, regeneration, and attend to how, at different points in time, research in regenerative biology has reflected and influenced assumptions and concerns about the applications of this work. Focusing on the lamprey fish, Kathryn Maxson Jones will argue that from 1900 to 2000, the emphasis of neuron regeneration research shifted from attempting to understand normal vertebrate structures and functions to the limits of these functions, with implications for biology and medicine. Then, Kate MacCord will examine how the history of germline regeneration research exposes problematic assumptions in human genome editing discussions, reaching back to distinctions between germ and soma in the "Weismann Barrier" (1893). Finally, in his paper on ecosystem regeneration, Frederick R. Davis will explore the fate of Frederic Clements's concept of succession (1916) and its critics, developing a case study of southern longleaf pine forests after burning. Together, these papers will consider regeneration as a boundary concept, crucial for examining trajectories by which biology affects society. In her comments, Jane Maienschein will draw conclusions about how regeneration has been studied across scales, attending to how assumptions and concerns about the applications of this work have affected how regeneration itself has been understood.

Presenter 1

Neuron Regeneration, Experimental Organisms, and the Curious Case of the Lamprey in 20th-Century Neurobiology

Kathryn Grace Maxson Jones

Princeton University; Marine Biological Laboratory

Abstract

How has the biology of neuron regeneration connected to medicine? This paper examines shifts in regenerative neurobiology across the 20th century. It argues that studies of an ancient fish, the lamprey, have reflected turning points in the history of neurobiology as it relates to medicine: because biologists first studied this organism for its similarity to humans, as a vertebrate, and then for its dissimilarity to humans, in its ability to regenerate central nervous system structures and functions. In the 1870s, Sigmund Freud mapped large neurons originating in the lamprey spinal cord, arguing that the nervous system was made of cells. In the next decades, Santiago Ramón y Cajal carried out pioneering work on vertebrate neuron regeneration, arguing that the process mimicked normal development and lent support for the neuron theory. Freud and Cajal were doctors; their studies of the units of nervous systems, on lampreys and regeneration (mostly) separately, reflected an emphasis in medical neurology on clarifying normal vertebrate structures and functions. By the 1960s, however, the focus of regenerative neurobiology shifted, and lamprey neurobiology shifted in turn. Injuries incurred in global wars, alongside pushes by funders for translational research, supported increased work on the limits of vertebrate nervous systems, rather than their norms, especially on how some non-human organisms accomplished central nervous system regeneration. An uptick in lamprey neurobiology papers followed, as did studies on regenerating invertebrates. A shift in the epistemological role of regeneration within neurobiology, then, triggered a related shift in the organisms biologists studied, with implications for biology and medicine. This paper will chart these changes across the long 20th century, drawing on lamprey neurobiology in the late 19th century, the 1960s, and the 1990s. In turn, it will consider implications for the meaning of regeneration generally.

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Presenter 2

The Historical Roots of a Flawed Assumption: How the History of Germline Research Reifies and Undermines the Human Genome Editing Debate

Kate MacCord

Marine Biological Laboratory

Abstract

In late 2018, Jian-hui He announced the creation of the world's first genetically altered babies. He's announcement fanned the flames of an already divisive debate around whether, or to what extent, scientists should be able to edit the human germline. While genome editing has been available for decades--and it has sparked extensive discussions, for instance around recombinant DNA and related biohazards in the 1970s--the introduction of the CRISPR-Cas9 system in 2012 re-awakened many to the possibility of human genome editing, and particularly to germline genome editing. The human germline genome, or the genome within the reproductive cells, has thus become the focus of intensive scrutiny and the center of a scientific, ethical, moral, and societal quagmire. Meanwhile, human somatic genome editing has been subject to much less rigorous discourse: clinical trials to deploy genome editing technologies in somatic cells for therapeutic purposes are currently underway. My central tenet in this paper is that there is a crucial assumption at the heart of this dichotomy between somatic and germline genome editing, one that deeply affects the social implications of this work: that the germline should be treated as distinct from soma. If the germline is altered, then changes are passed to subsequent generations; if somatic cells are altered, changes are not propagated. I will argue that this assumption is the result of contingencies that extend back to the 19th century, and that it is flawed. In examining the history leading to this crucial assumption, I will focus particular attention on the phenomenon of germline regeneration. I will use this history to show how we came to the current distinction of germline versus soma within human genome editing discussions, and how this is a potentially lethal assumption.

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Presenter 3

A Bird's Eye View: Regeneration at the Ecosystem Level

Frederick R. Davis

Purdue University

Abstract

Ecologists, foresters, and conservationists have long debated regeneration at the level of the ecosystem. Reforestation, restoration, refaunation, and rewilding are just a few of the terms that have been applied to describe ecosystem regeneration. Yet, historians can also study ecosystem regeneration through additional influential concepts, including Frederic Clements's "ecological succession" (1916) describing the processes by which species structures shift in delimited areas through time. In developing ecological succession, Clements came to call the unit of climax formation--the unit wherein species structures become constant, and thus succession stops--an "organic entity," or a community of organisms which could arise, grow, mature, and die. Henry Gleason introduced the individualistic concept of the "plant association" in a direct challenge to Clementsian succession (1926), arguing that the more important units in climax formation were individual species. Arthur Tansley also rejected Clements's use of "organism" in reference to communities of plants and animals, coining the term "ecosystem" in 1935. Nevertheless, in "The Strategy for Ecosystem Development"--written at the height of the US environmental movement in 1969--Eugene Odum revived the Clementsian view of ecosystems as spatial and energetic wholes, and even argued for succession as a potential resolution for man's conflict with nature. The historical use of terms like "organism" in ecology, and Odum's elevation of succession to an instrument of human betterment during the Cold War, paralleled shifts in regeneration research at other biological levels. In a close historical and present-day study of fire-dependent, southern longleaf pine forests, this paper will examine succession, disturbance, and climax formation in an ecosystem, and explore whether it has been, and is, appropriate to identify regeneration occurring at this level. Implications for conservation will also be discussed.

Metadata

Commentator

Jane Maienschein

Arizona State University