Theory in Biosciences

, Volume 134, Issue 3–4, pp 143–147 | Cite as

The relativity of biological function

  • Manfred D. Laubichler
  • Peter F. StadlerEmail author
  • Sonja J. Prohaska
  • Katja Nowick
Short Communication


Function is a central concept in biological theories and explanations. Yet discussions about function are often based on a narrow understanding of biological systems and processes, such as idealized molecular systems or simple evolutionary, i.e., selective, dynamics. Conflicting conceptions of function continue to be used in the scientific literature to support certain claims, for instance about the fraction of “functional DNA” in the human genome. Here we argue that all biologically meaningful interpretations of function are necessarily context dependent. This implies that they derive their meaning as well as their range of applicability only within a specific theoretical and measurement context. We use this framework to shed light on the current debate about functional DNA and argue that without considering explicitly the theoretical and measurement contexts all attempts to integrate biological theories are prone to fail.


Biological function ENCODE Biological theory  Coarse graining Theory integration 



We thank Jan Aerts and Steve Hoffmann for critical reading of the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Manfred D. Laubichler
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Peter F. Stadler
    • 4
    • 5
    • 6
    • 7
    • 8
    • 9
    Email author
  • Sonja J. Prohaska
    • 10
  • Katja Nowick
    • 11
  1. 1.School of Life SciencesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.Marine Biological LaboratoryWoods HoleUSA
  3. 3.Santa Fe InstituteSanta FeUSA
  4. 4.Bioinformatics Group at the Department of Computer Science, Interdisciplinary Center of Bioinformatics, LIFE - Leipzig Research Center for Civilization Diseases, and German Center for Integrative Biodiversity ResearchUniversity LeipzigLeipzigGermany
  5. 5.Max-Planck Institute for Mathematics in the SciencesLeipzigGermany
  6. 6.Fraunhofer Institut für Zelltherapie und Immunologie – IZILeipzigGermany
  7. 7.Department of Theoretical ChemistryUniversity of ViennaWienAustria
  8. 8.Center for non-coding RNA in Technology and HealthUniversity of CopenhagenFrederiksberg CDenmark
  9. 9.Santa Fe InstituteSanta FeUSA
  10. 10.Computational EvoDevo Group, Department of Computer Science and Interdisciplinary Center of BioinformaticsUniversity LeipzigLeipzigGermany
  11. 11.TFome Research Group at Department of Computer Science, Paul-Flechsig-Institute for Brain Research, and Interdisciplinary Center of BioinformaticsUniversity LeipzigLeipzigGermany

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