Discovery of causal mechanisms: Oxidative phosphorylation and the Calvin-Benson cycle.

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History and philosophy of the life sciences, ISSN: 0391-9714, Vol: 37, Issue: 2, Page: 180-209

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Scholl, Raphael; Nickelsen, Kärin
Springer Nature; Springer
Arts and Humanities
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We investigate the context of discovery of two significant achievements of twentieth century biochemistry: the chemiosmotic mechanism of oxidative phosphorylation (proposed in 1961 by Peter Mitchell) and the dark reaction of photosynthesis (elucidated from 1946 to 1954 by Melvin Calvin and Andrew A. Benson). The pursuit of these problems involved discovery strategies such as the transfer, recombination and reversal of previous causal and mechanistic knowledge in biochemistry. We study the operation and scope of these strategies by careful historical analysis, reaching a number of systematic conclusions: (1) even basic strategies can illuminate "hard cases" of scientific discovery that go far beyond simple extrapolation or analogy; (2) the causal-mechanistic approach to discovery permits a middle course between the extremes of a completely substrate-neutral and a completely domain-specific view of scientific discovery; (3) the existing literature on mechanism discovery underemphasizes the role of combinatorial approaches in defining and exploring search spaces of possible problem solutions; (4) there is a subtle interplay between a fine-grained mechanistic and a more coarse-grained causal level of analysis, and both are needed to make discovery processes intelligible.