News Release

Everybody makes mistakes and so do biological systems: a theoretical framework for generating research questions in biology

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Chicago Press Journals

It is a matter of contention whether it is possible to provide a philosophically convincing  general explanatory framework for the biological sciences which is also of scientific value. The authors of a new paper published in The Quarterly Review of Biology suggest that the framework they present has the potential to achieve both aims, and go on to provide detailed proposals for procedures capable of generating new scientific questions.

In “Mistake-Making: A Theoretical Framework For Generating Research Questions In Biology, With Illustrative Application To Blood Clotting,” Jonathan Hill, David S. Oderberg, Jonathan M. Gibbins, and Ingo Bojak observe that all biological systems have the potential to make mistakes and set out to describe the nature of this potential and the common processes that lie behind it.

The authors argue that the details of these processes provide a means of interrogating biological systems systematically. They illustrate how this framework can be applied to the hemostatic system (blood clotting) as an example, examining potential mistakes that can occur in platelet activation and the further mistakes those might trigger. “Given that under most circumstances biological systems function effectively, an examination of different kinds of mistake-making provides pointers to mechanisms that must exist to make failure uncommon," they write, noting that their framework can apply to any system across biology.

Their thesis is that all biological systems are mistake-prone. When studying the biological significance of physical variations, the general definition of “mistakes” is physical variations that threaten function. "Physical variations" can be either in the system’s environment or system's structure, and "function" is understood as effective action that brings about relevant and well-timed change that preserves, protects, or promotes the welfare of an organism, including survival or reproductive advantage, at the individual or species level.

“A major challenge in attempting to formulate generally applicable theoretical frameworks for biology is how to provide on the one hand sufficient generality, covering the vast diversity of biological systems, and on the other enough specificity to mark out phenomena susceptible to testing by working biologists," they write. Mistake-making provides a starting point with the required generality, and the pervasive use of the language of mistake-making in biological research suggests that specificity may be achievable. “By examining the details of mistake-making, we arrive at a general description of the requirements for a biological system to act effectively in its environment,” they write. “Crucially, we believe, this description is capable of generating specific research questions while at the same time retaining its generality.”

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