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Modelling molecular mechanisms: a framework of scientific reasoning to construct molecular-level explanations for cellular behaviour

By M.H.W. van Mil, D.J. Boerwinkel and A.J. Waarlo

Abstract

Although molecular-level details are part of the upper-secondary biology curriculum in most countries, many studies report that students fail to connect molecular knowledge to phenomena at the level of cells, organs and organisms. Recent studies suggest that students lack a framework to reason about complex systems to make this connection. In this paper, we present a framework that could help students to reason back and forth between cells and molecules. It represents both the general type of explanation in molecular biology and the research strategies scientists use to find these explanations. We base this framework on recent work in the philosophy of science that characterizes explanations in molecular biology as mechanistic explanations. Mechanistic explanations describe a phenomenon in terms of the entities involved, the activities displayed and the way these entities and activities are organized. We conclude that to describe cellular phenomena scientists use entities and activities at multiple levels between cells and molecules. In molecular biological research, scientists use heuristics based on these intermediate levels to construct mechanistic explanations. They subdivide a cellular activity into hypothetical lower-level activities (top-down approaches) and they predict and test the organization of macromolecules into functional modules that play a role in higherlevel activities (bottom-up approaches). We suggest including molecular mechanistic reasoning in biology education and we identify criteria for designing such education. Education using molecular mechanistic reasoning can build on common intuitive reasoning about mechanisms. The heuristics that scientists use can help students to apply this intuitive notion to the levels in between molecules and cells

Topics: SCI and SSCI Journals
Year: 2013
OAI identifier: oai:dspace.library.uu.nl:1874/288554
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