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Egenis · Research

The Virtual Plant: A history of Arabidopsis thaliana

Sabina Leonelli

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Arabidopsis thaliana is a small flowering weed of no apparent significance: it grows easily all over the northern hemisphere and gardeners generally regard it as a pest. Yet over 16,000 scientists across the globe currently use Arabidopsis in their experiments. The scientific study of Arabidopsis generated much of the knowledge and technology needed to produce genetically modified food and bio-fuels. Indeed, this plant has changed the face of plant biology: it has become the central object for discussion and comparison in the field. Remarkably, what attracts attention are the digital representations of the plant (in the form of databases and digital models) that are freely available on the Internet. Arabidopsis has become a virtual object, a transformation that makes it ever more easily accessible and manipulable to plant scientists around the world.


This project explores the rise to fame of Arabidopsis thaliana as the most popular model organism in plant biology. How and why did an insignificant plant such as Arabidopsis acquire such prominence? The project answers this question by exploring the history of Arabidopsis use in plant science throughout the 20th century.

  • I document early attempts to use Arabidopsis as a model for the study of genetic variability across plant ecotypes, and explain the background that led to a sudden global boom in Arabidopsis research in the late 1970s.
  • I focus particularly on the gradual digitalisation of results coming from Arabidopsis research that took place at the end of the century, and argue that the possibility to store and retrieve these results through the Internet has been a decisive factor in making Arabidopsis into an indispensible research tool.
  • I also consider the role of Arabidopsis research in stimulating the development of genetically modified foods and bio-fuels. The digitalisation of Arabidopsis made plant biology eminently applicable within industrial R&D around the world.
  • I offer a philosophical reflection on the epistemic role of non-human model organisms. I argue that their prominence in biomedical research is largely due to the inherent ambiguity in their epistemic status: at once sample of nature and man-made artefact, model of other organisms and model for the study of specific hypotheses.
  • Finally, this project addresses the tensions and productive interrelations between 'basic' and 'applied' science within plant and agricultural science in the 20th century. Arabidopsis is an excellent case for such an analysis, given that research on this plant was crucial to the introduction of molecular methods in plant science, and was funded as 'basic research' for at least three decades.
As part of this project, I serve in the advisory board of GARNet and regularly attend conferences in plant science. I have been invited to lecture on the history of Arabidopsis in occasion of the Centenary of the John Innes Centre (video of the talk available here).


Leonelli, S., The Virtual Plant: an epistemic history of Arabidopsis thaliana. Monograph in preparation.

Leonelli, S. and Ankeny, R.A. (forthcoming 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. (2008) Growing Weed, Producing Knowledge. A Epistemological History of Arabidopsis thaliana. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 29 (2), pp 55-87.

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

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) Performing Abstraction. Two Ways of Modelling Arabidopsis thaliana. Biology and Philosophy 23(4), pp 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.