History of Molecular Biology


Despite the huge place molecular biology has acquired in biological research, it remains difficult to provide a definition of it. Is molecular biology a scientific discipline, or a new vision of organisms? When did it emerge? Is molecular biology still alive, or has this discipline died, and been replaced by new disciplines such as systems and synthetic biology? Were molecular biologists too reductionist?

Three successive steps can be distinguished in the history of molecular biology: the 1930s, with the development of new technologies aimed at describing the structure of macromolecules, and an effort to ‘naturalise life’; a relatively short period (1940–1965) in which the main results were obtained; and the huge accumulation of molecular data that has modified biology since this time. Despite the fact that molecular explanations have in part reached their limits, I consider that molecular biology has succeeded in ‘naturalising life’.

Key Concepts

  • Molecular biology is not a new discipline, but a new level of explanation.
  • Biologists are still working within the framework of the ‘molecular paradigm’ built more than 50 years ago.
  • Structural biology is an essential, but not a highly visible part of molecular biology.
  • Personalised medicine is a consequence of the progress made in DNA sequencing.

Keywords: reductionism; ‘naturalising life’; systems biology; synthetic biology; mechanistic explanations; relations between molecular and evolutionary biology

Further Reading

Brock TD (1990) The Emergence of Bacterial Genetics. Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

Cobb M (2015) Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code. London: Profile Books

Judson HF (1996) The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology. Cold spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

Kay LE (1993) The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kay LE (2000) Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Morange M (1998) A History of Molecular Biology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Olby R (2009) Francis Crick: Hunter of Life's Secrets. Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press

Porcar M and Pereto J (2014) Synthetic Biology from iGEM to the Artificial Cell. Dordrecht: Springer

Rasmussen N (2014) Gene Jockeys: Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Summers WC (1999) Félix d'Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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How to Cite close
Morange, Michel(Feb 2016) History of Molecular Biology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003079.pub3]