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Hist Philos Life Sci. 2002;24(2):165-92.

From heresy to dogma in accounts of opposition to Howard Temin's DNA provirus hypothesis.

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  • 1Department of Philosophy, Baylor University, Waco, TX 76798, USA.


In 1964 the Wisconsin virologist Howard Temin proposed the DNA provirus hypothesis to explain the mechanism by which a cancer-producing virus containing only RNA infects and transforms cells. His hypothesis reversed the flow of genetic information, as ordained by the central dogma of molecular biology. Although there was initial opposition to his hypothesis it was widely accepted, after the discovery of reverse transcriptase in 1970. Most accounts of Temin's hypothesis after the discovery portray the hypothesis as heretical, because it challenged the central dogma. Temin himself in his Nobel Prize speech of 1975 narrates a similar story about its reception. But are these accounts warranted? I argue that members of the virology community opposed Temin's provirus hypothesis not simply because it was a counterexample to the central dogma, but more importantly because his experimental evidence for supporting it was inconclusive. Furthermore, I propose that these accounts of opposition to the DNA provirus hypothesis as heretical, written by Temin and others after the discovery of reverse transcriptase, played a significant role in establishing retrovirology as a specialized field.

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