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Journal Articles History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences Year : 2022

A hapless mathematical contribution to biology


This is the story, told in the light of a new analysis of historical data, of a mathematical biology problem that was explored in the 1930s in Thomas Morgan’s laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. It is one of the early developments of evolutionary genetics and quantitative phylogeny, and deals with the identification and counting of chromosomal inversions in Drosophila species from comparisons of genetic maps. A re-analysis of the data produced in the 1930s using current mathematics and computational technologies reveals how a team of biologists, with the help of a renowned mathematician and against their first intuition, came to an erroneous conclusion regarding the presence of phylogenetic signals in gene arrangements. This example illustrates two different aspects of a same piece: (1) the appearance of a mathematical in biology problem solved with the development of a combinatorial algorithm, which was unusual at the time, and (2) the role of errors in scientific activity. Also underlying is the possible influence of computational complexity in understanding the directions of research in biology.
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hal-03153696 , version 1 (26-02-2021)
hal-03153696 , version 2 (21-03-2022)
hal-03153696 , version 3 (20-09-2022)



Eric Tannier. A hapless mathematical contribution to biology: Chromosome inversions in Drosophila 1937-1941. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 2022, 44 (34), ⟨10.1007/s40656-022-00514-x⟩. ⟨hal-03153696v3⟩
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