Discovering Autoinhibition as a Design Principle for the Control of Biological Mechanisms

Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 95 (C):145-157 (2022)
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Autoinhibition is a design principle realized in many molecular mechanisms in biology. After explicating the notion of a design principle and showing that autoinhibition is such a principle, we focus on how researchers discovered instances of autoinhibition, using research establishing the autoinhibition of the molecular motors kinesin and dynein as our case study. Research on kinesin and dynein began in the fashion described in accounts of mechanistic explanation but, once the mechanisms had been discovered, researchers discovered that they exhibited a second phenomenon, autoinhibition. The discovery of autoinhibition not only reverses the pattern in terms of which philosophers have understood mechanism discovery but runs counter to the one phenomenon-one mechanism principle assumed to relate mechanisms and the phenomena they explain. The ubiquity of autoinhibition as a design principle, therefore, necessitates a philosophical understanding of mechanisms that recognizes how they can participate in more than one phenomenon. Since mechanisms with this design are released from autoinhibition only when they are acted on by control mechanisms, we advance a revised account of mechanisms that accommodates attribution of multiple phenomena to the same mechanism and distinguishes them from other processes that control them.

Author Profiles

William Bechtel
University of California, San Diego
Andrew Bollhagen
University of California, San Diego


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