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Egenis · Research

Sociology, history and epistemology of model organisms

Sabina Leonelli, Rachel A. Ankeny

Start date



Researchers: , Rachel AnkenyEmail: s.leonelli@exeter.ac.uk

Funded by

ESRC and University of Adelaide


Model organisms are non-human species on which a range of biological phenomena are studied, with the implicit assumption that the results obtained - data, models, theories - will apply to a range of other organisms, particularly to some that are more complex than the species studied.

In 1929, August Krogh pointed out that, "For a large number of problems, there will be some animal of choice, or a few such animals on which it can most conveniently be studied". Historically, biologists have often worked with species they were familar with, and some of their advantages have only been recognized retrospectively. The US National Institutes of Health's list of model species comprises only 13 species, from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, via the plant Arabidopsis thaliana and the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans to the mouse Mus musculus. But the term 'model organism' has become ubiquitous in biological discourse since the multiplication of whole-genome sequencing projects, as a synonym for 'experimental organism' for the phenomenon under scrutiny. As competitive grant systems force groups to rationalise their research around a 'model organism', many groups experience the pressure either to switch experimental organism or elevate it to the status of model organism.

Hence the notion of the 'model organism' is influencing agendas and closing avenues in research. Furthermore, the implied notion of unity across lifeforms may hinder the exploration of diversity, as well as stress genetics over other analytical levels, which brings into question the validity of model organisms as research tools.


The aims of this project are:

  • To find out what essential characteristics model organisms have that generic experimental organisms lack,
  • To highlight the vital role they have acquired in contemporary biological research as reference systems,
  • To detail the complex historical and epistemological factors that have led them to have this status, and
  • To investigate the implications for research and funding.


Leonelli, S. (in preparation) When Humans Are the Exception: Cross-Species Databases at the Interface of Clinical and Biological Research.

Leonelli, S. and Ankeny, R.A. (2012) Re-Thinking Organisms: The Epistemic Impact of Databases on Model Organism Biology. Studies in the History and the Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 

Ankeny, R.A. and Leonelli, S. (2011) What is so special about model organisms? Studies in the History and the Philosophy of Science: Part A, 42 (2): 313-323.

Leonelli, S. (2010) Documenting the Emergence of Bio-Ontologies: Or, Why Researching Bioinformatics Requires HPSSB. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 32, 1: 105-126.

Leonelli, S. (2008) Bio-Ontologies as Tools for Integration in Biology. Biological Theory, 3, 1: 8-11.

Leonelli, S. (2008) Performing Abstraction. Two Ways of Modelling Arabidopsis thaliana. Biology and Philosophy, 23, 4: 509-528.

Leonelli, S (2007) What is in a Model? Using Theoretical and Material Models to Develop Intelligible Theories. In Laubichler, M. and Muller, G.B. (eds) Modeling Biology. Structures, Behaviour, Evolution. Vienna Series: MIT Press.

Leonelli, S. (2007) Cultivando Hierba, Produciendo conocimiento. Una historia epistemologica de Arabidopsis thaliana. In Suarez, E. (ed) Variedad Sin Limites. Las Rapresentaciones en la Ciencia. Universidad Autonoma de Mexico y Editor Limusa.

Leonelli, S. (2007) Growing Weed, Producing Knowledge. An Epistemic History of Arabidopsis thaliana. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 29, 2: 55-87.

Leonelli, S. (2007) Arabidopsis, the Botanical Drosophila: From Mouse-Cress to Model Organism. Review Article. Endeavour, 31, 1: 34-38.

Response to Nuffield Foundation Consultation on ‘New Approaches to Biofuels’. March 2010.

Report for GARNet/BBSRC: ‘Business Models for Database Funding’. April 2010.

Response to OECD Consultation on ‘Data Sharing in Genomics’. June 2008.