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A (Balanced) History Of Molecular Biology

If you’ve ever wondered how molecular biology came to prominence in biomedical research, why so many famous molecular biologists of the past century were trained as physicists, or when bacteriophages were first used as cloning vectors, you may be looking for a good read on the history of molecular biology.

Unlike in evolutionary biology, where there are many current issues informed by historical research and which has a fair amount of engagement between practicing scientists and historians, much of the story of molecular biology has been told sporadically and unevenly, often in the memoirs of scientists or by science journalists.

Navigating through these numerous popular histories of molecular and cell biology can be challenging.

Some suffer from a  bias toward the achievements of the English-speaking research community, or often the tell only the story of a single research group; others are so popular as to sound condescending to the scientifically literate.  (Many fun books are autobiographical rather than historical, from Watson’s The Double Helix to Francois Jacob’s meditative and literary The Statue Within, as much war memoir as a scientific tale).

I recently reread Michel Morange’s A History of Molecular Biology, and think it avoids these pitfalls well, and makes a great first read for those who are curious about the history their field.

Morange, a molecular biologist at the Ecole Normale Superieure, is at his best chronicling the early days of molecular biology.

Almost everyone agrees that Post-War molecular biology was shaped – to some extent – by the contributions of physicists who joined many labs in biochemistry and genetics.

But there is a fair amount of debate regarding how influential they were.

Morange argues that the reductionism of, and sometimes bewilderment at biochemical complexity which many physicists brought to their newly adopted field led them toward a “unifying vision,” simplifying things as much as possible, and this greatly accelerated the pace of research.

Salvador Luria, for instance, was influenced by the reasoning of physicists to break with the experimental models of classical genetics and develop new calculation methods for phenomena such as mutation rates. He drew from statistical physics in demonstrating Darwinian inheritance among bacteria.

Morange makes a good case that the technical and procedural emphasis in molecular biology has been enhanced, if not created, by the influence of twentieth-century physics.  He writes:

“The development of the techniques of genetic engineering shows that the molecular understanding of biology, acquired between 1940 and 1965, was an operational understanding. Today both molecular biologists and physicists share a scientific world view in which knowledge and action are intimately linked.

Physicists played an important role in this change in the form of biological knowledge, by the way they conceived and carried out their     experiments.  In following Delbruck and asking simple questions of biological objects, they     obliged these objects to reply in the same language.” (p101)

For readers who’ve not encountered the classic works of Fran?§ois Jacob and others, Morange introduces  “The “French School,” recounting how what initially were enzymology  research groups engendered some intrinsic priorities of molecular biology.

On the question of  how France, whose post-war institutions lagged behind in classical genetics and even biochemistry, managed to accomplish so much in molecular biology, the institutional history is instructive.  Morange points to the scientists at The Pasteur Institute, which was the autonomous center of the most crucial French research in the 1960s, including the development of the allosteric model.

It’s  impressive to see how far they made their resources stretch and how vast their collaboration was.

After a more than a decade, this book holds up well. Some readers may disagree with the definition that starts the book:  molecular biology “consists of all those techniques and discoveries that make it possible to carry out a molecular analysis of the most fundamental biological processes – those involved in the stability, survival, and reproduction of genes.”

Much more dated and tendentious (early 1990s) is Morange’s claim that molecular biology has yet to make a significant impact on evolutionary biology.  Evo-devo’s meteoric rise complicates this considerably.

One chapter, “Molecular Biology in the Life Sciences,” makes the claim that nothing of value has come from strictly molecular approaches to evolutionary biology or population genetics (p249), and speculates if Ernst Mayr’s distinction between “individual” and “population” biologies will disappear, to the detriment of one or both fields.

As our understanding of regulatory genes and developmental biology increases, it seems less likely that this is less likely to be the case.

Finally, Morange contrasts the difference between our current gene-centered molecular biology, and it’s precursor, which focused on proteins via enzymology.

This distinction is crucial, because before the working out of the genetic code, and the development of molecular genetics, separating molecular biology from its precursor disciplines (such as genetics and biochemistry) was difficult: so was figuring out when the newer discipline emerged.

The contemporary molecular biology began when it became less defined by study of structures and more concerned with information:

“The new molecular biology has become a way of “reading” life. “Classical” molecular biology had shown the importance of genetic code, of information linked to nucleotide sequences. Sanger, followed by many others, sequenced proteins and substituted the linear sequence of their amino acids for their structural complexity.

But this classical molecular biology was centered on proteins. In experimental terms, studies of the structure, function, and specificity of proteins came before studies of their amino acid sequence, anticipating the study of the nucleotide sequence in the genes that coded for these proteins.”  (215)

If the development of molecular biology was directed historically by physics, its current boundaries have been shaped by technology more than any field of “pure” science.

Morange writes that the technological discoveries like gene cloning, DNA polymerase, and PCR made the “new molecular biology,” which is a field defined by its techniques of  “reading” biological information.

Putting aside the metaphor of “reading”life – which has a fascinating but very off-topic history, I’m not certain I find the science/technology distinction useful in this context.

But I think readers will find these latter chapters raise interesting questions about whether to view molecular biology as a foremost as a scientific field or collection of experimental approaches which are useful in other biological and biomedical disciplines.

Check it out in our bookstore, and if you read it, let us know what you think.


  1. MadGenius on November 25, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    How does this book compare with HF Judson’s The Eight Day of Creation, and Hatch Echols’s Operators & Promoters?

  2. Greg on January 22, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    It’s been a long time since I read Judson’s book, but I’d say Morange is somewhat accessible to a general audience. Basic scientific literacy helps, but Morange includes an appendix covering the basics. I

  3. Guy Plunkett III on January 21, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Hey Greg,
    I may have to check Morange’s book out. Personally I’ve always enjoyed PATOMB (aka Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology) by John Cairns, Gunther Stent, and James Watson — but that may reflect both my age and my phage-centric interests.

  4. Eric on January 21, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    How does “A HIstory of Molecular Biology” compare to “The Eighth Day of Creation” in terms of accessibility to a general audience?

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