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Nickelsen, Kärin (2017): The organism strikes back: Chlorella algae and their impact on photosynthesis research, 1920s-1960s. In: History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Vol. 39, No. 2, 9
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Abstract

Historians and philosophers of twentieth-century life sciences have demonstrated that the choice of experimental organism can profoundly influence research fields, in ways that sometimes undermined the scientists' original intentions. The present paper aims to enrich and broaden the scope of this literature by analysing the career of unicellular green algae of the genus Chlorella. They were introduced for the study of photosynthesis in 1919 by the German cell physiologist Otto H. Warburg, and they became the favourite research objects in this field up to the 1960s. The paper argues that dealing with Chlorella's high metabolic flexibility was crucial for the emergence of a new conception of photosynthesis, as a plastic, integrated system of pathways. At the same time, it led to new collaborations between physiologists and phycologists, both of whom started to re-orient their studies in ecologically informed directions. Following Chlorella's trail, hence, not only elucidates how experimental organisms forced scientists to change their conceptual approaches and techniques, but also provides insight into the interaction of different lines of research of mid-twentieth century plant sciences.