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Murillo Sara | Writing-Up Fellow
2016-10-01 - 2017-03-31 | Research area: EvoDevo
A 'Systems Chemistry' Approach for the Naturalization of Concepts in Biology

The understanding of the phenomenon of life has been always a main challenge for science. Traditionally, the evolutionary framework, in which life is conceived from a historical and collective point of view, has had higher weight; however, the organizational perspective, which looks for general principles underlying biological individuals (cellular organisms in particular), is gaining momentum during the last years, especially after the emergence of systems biology. This tension is also apparent within the origins of life research field, where there are very important difficulties to account for the transition from the chemical (molecular) to the biological (cellular) domain according to a classical evolutionary scenario (i.e., selection algorithms applied to populations of ‘replicating’ chemical species). In this context, a new sub-discipline has been launched recently in Europe, called ‘systems chemistry’, whose aim is the scientific study of complex mixtures of molecules and their emergent (dynamic and evolutionary) behaviors, which could change the state of affairs, providing the right platform to tackle the origin-of-life problem. This PhD is an attempt to contribute to that general goal, showing that there is very interesting and fertile ground to explore various connections between systems biology and systems chemistry. More precisely, my claim is that fundamental concepts in biological explanations, like function or information, which have an intrinsic relational character (i.e., ought to be understood in terms of relationships among molecular components), should be naturalized through a genealogical approach to biological complexity, starting from its chemical roots. In other words, I will defend that origins-of-life research, if tackled from a systems standpoint (like systems chemistry aims to do), is bound to provide key insights for theoretical biology, both from an organizational and an evolutionary perspective. I have worked in the development of an empirical protocellular model that may bring some light into several aspects related to the emergence of cellular organization.

Through that experimental model, my objective is to illustrate how the first steps towards biological individuality and function could be addressed in a chemical context. In addition, on more general grounds, this PhD is an appeal to transciplinarity in science. In fact, the experimental work carried out was designed from a previous theoretical model, which in turn was based on philosophical reflection around the problem of origins of life. On these lines, we will claim that philosophical work, if properly channeled, can reinforce science and vice-versa. This leads to a new conception of philosophy of science (philosophy for science), which will be suggested as the most promising option for philosophy to play a relevant role in the future generation of human knowledge.