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Species Choice and Model Use: Reviving Research on Human Development

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Hopwood, Nicholas 


While model organisms have had many historians, this article places studies of humans, and particularly our development, in the politics of species choice. Human embryos, investigated directly rather than via animal surrogates, have gone through cycles of attention and neglect. In the past sixty years they moved from the sidelines to center stage. Research was resuscitated in anatomy, launched in reproductive biomedicine, molecular genetics, and stem-cell science, and made attractive in developmental biology. I explain this surge of interest in terms of rivalry with models and reliance on them. The greater involvement of medicine in human reproduction, especially through in vitro fertilization, gave access to fresh sources of material that fed critiques of extrapolation from mice and met demands for clinical relevance or “translation.” Yet much of the revival depended on models. Supply infrastructures and digital standards, including biobanks and virtual atlases, emulated community resources for model organisms. Novel culture, imaging, molecular, and postgenomic methods were perfected on less precious samples. Toing and froing from the mouse affirmed the necessity of the exemplary mammal and its insufficiency justified inquiries into humans. Another kind of model—organoids and embryo-like structures derived from stem cells—enabled experiments that encouraged the organization of a new field, human developmental biology. Research on humans has competed with and counted on models.



Biobanks, Digital anatomy, Human developmental biology, Model organisms, Postgenomic science, Stem-cell-based embryo models

Journal Title

Journal of the History of Biology

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Springer Nature

Publisher DOI

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Leverhulme Trust (MRF-2020-037)
Leverhulme Trust (MRF-2020-037)