Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, Princeton University
2022 to 2023
The Currency of the Cell: Energy Cycles and the Remaking of Metabolism, 1900–1970
One commonly hears the statement “you are what you eat,” but what does this actually mean in scientific terms? Over the course of the twentieth century, physiologists and biochemists sought to determine how food is broken down and converted into a form of molecular energy that the cells of the body can utilize. My dissertation project examines the history of research into the nature of biological energy, focusing especially on the metaphors deployed by scientists working in this field. Ultimately, I argue that as researchers began to identify the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as the universal energy “currency” of the cell, they simultaneously constructed the biological cell as an “economy” in which the ATP “currency” circulated. My analysis of the usage of these kinds of economic metaphors in twentieth-century biochemistry broadens our understanding of the interrelations between the life sciences and economics.