& Biocapitalism in the Race to Map to the Human Genome
by Eugene Thacker
"We pave the way for a new era of post-genomic discovery."
Craig Venter, President, Celera Genomics
Just this past month, Celera Genomics, Inc. (http://www.celera.com),
announced that it had delivered the sequence of over 1 billion base
pairs of human DNA to its subscribers, roughly one-third of the estimated
number of total base pairs in the human genome. In 1998, Craig Venter,
a one-time NIH researcher, started a private company whose publicly-stated
goal would be to sequence the entire human genome in less time and
for less money than the U.S. government-supported Human Genome Project.
Venter's announcement sent a shockwave through the biotechnology community,
urging the various government organizations toboost their own timetables
for the race to sequence the human genome. Now, roughly a year later,
Venter's company - Celera Genomics - says it is working steadily towards
its goal of completing the genome just afterthe millennium. Celera
is one part of the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, theother of which is
PE Biosystems, a manufacturer of lab technologies, software, instruments,
and related services. In keeping with the company's corporate model,
Celera sells "subscription" access to the results of its
genomics research, so that paying organizations will have direct access
to this privately-funded map of the human genome.
With all the discussion, reportage, and hype surrounding contemporary
biotechnology and molecular genetics, the stage has been set for what
will appear to be a polarized, divided intersection of hopes, anxieties,
promises, and skepticism. On the side of molecular biotechnology research
and application, press releases and interviews with researchers display
a combination of enthusiasm and a product-driven speculation of "revolutions"
in health care and medicine. On the side of a diverse group of
writers, activists, and cultural theorists, there is a commonly-felt
need to intervene in the process of "producing scientific artifact"
and to begin discussing issues pertaining to bioethics, technology
development, policy and regulation, and the potential implications
for health care and medicine. In the zone between practical research
and critical intervention, between science-based speculation and the
call for an emphasis on cultural contingency, the exceedingly broad
field known of biotechnology has become a kind of war zone, mobilizing
research results, governments, corporations, molecules, patent claims,
lab technologies, cloned animals and embryos, patients in clinical
trials, specialist and popular discourses, and fluxes in information
Currently, there appear to be two main forces driving molecular biotechnology
research, and, in turn, affecting notions of how the human body, identity,
and "life" will be defined in the coming "biotech century."
The first of these is a fast-growing field called "bioinformatics."
Put simply, bioinformatics relates to the efficient management, analysis,
storage, and representation of molecular and genetic information.
For instance, researchers working on the Human Genome Project have
to deal with a vast amount of information on a regular basis, correlating
previous research (sequence, mapping, structural information) with
current research, and using new computer technologies to analyze a
given gene sequence in the most accurate, detailed, and sophisticated
manner. The use of powerful computers has been indispensable in this
area. In fact, many of these computer databases run on networked server
computers, making access to a givengenetic database available over
the Web. The number of such databases - genomes of humans, worms,
bacteria, but also protein and RNA databases - runs into the thousands,
rooted in research and corporate institutions mostly in the U.S.,
Western Europe, and Japan.
The second dynamic characterization in current biotechnology research
is, of course, the different types of investment and flows of capital
which make possible a significant amount of research and product development.
If the early days of the biotech industry during the 1980s can be
characterized by an influx of corporate investment (mostly in the
speculative promises of biotech start-ups), the current scene seems
to be dominated by a common interest in a service economy (genetic-based
therapies) which also have the flexibility to function as a generator
of products (such as pharmaceuticals). While the discourses of
development and transformation will always be a part of the biotech
industry, the current diversification of corporate biotech into the
areas of technology development, pharmaceuticals, genetics-based services,
and computational biology also means that increasingly biotechnology
itself is becoming a diversified technoscience.
Celera's example encapsulates both of these trends in an integrated
way, combining corporate business models with the latest in computer
and analysis technologies (for example, their array of "shotgun
sequencing" machines and microarray DNA chips). And because Celera
is backed by corporate support and investment, it gains a greater
amount of freedom from the regulations and contingencies of national
governments, though recent debates in Congress over embryonic stem
cell research threatens to temper such freedoms.
Where is the (biomedical) body in such scenarios? If the field of
molecular genetics and biotechnology already seems a far cry from
the familiar, anthropomorphic sciences of anatomy and physiology,
their integration into complex models of information and stock value
would seem to further abstract the body into a set of computational
digits and values. This twofold influence of bioinformatics and biocapital
provides a further extrapolation to the already-existent idea of an
abstract genetic "code": not only are bodies equal to their
genetic code, but, in the case of bioinformatics, that genetic code
is equal to digital code, archived in the online database. Similarly,
the fluxes and dynamics of gene discovery, sequencing, and patenting
comes to express a direct homology with the fluxes and dynamics of
capital investment in companies such as Celera. In the proliferative
generation of so many data flows and flows in value, the zone left
abandoned is, often, the point where those flows actually touch the
bodies of individual patients, and more importantly the ways in which
such regulation of information also signals a new type of monitoring
or "governmentality" of the genetic individual and genomic
In its original definition, modern biotechnology presented itself
as a research-based industry with the potential to transform not only
medical treatment of the human body, but it also held in it the promise
to transform the biological domain itself, through genetic engineering,
gene therapy, genetic profiling, and other fields such as tissue engineering
and food biotechnology. However the so-called "biotech boom"
the 1980s is, comparatively speaking, long past, and with it the public
debates over the uses and abuses of recombinant DNA technologies.
In the contemporary scene, dominated by developments in bioinformatics
and biocapital, molecular biotechnology is increasingly being forced
to deliver on its promises. Yet what might be at issue here is not
so much whether or not "Big Pharma" (the multinational pharmaceutical
corporations) or the Human Genome Project actually completes the map
of the human genome, but whether the underlying power relationships
and over-arching structure within which the possibility of
research can take place continues to serve as an adequate model
for the hoped-for transformations in medicine, and, ultimately, human
Copyright © 1999 Eugene Thacker
Eugene Thacker currently teaches at Rutgers University, & has
presented work through Alt-X, Ars Electronica, CTHEORY, Leonardo,
and Rhizome Artbase. He is a contributing editor at The Thing and
a collaborator with Fakeshop.
References and Links
 Examples of press releases from various biotech corporations can
be accessed through Biospace.com [http://www.biospace.com], the leading
hub for news in the biotech industry.
 Examples of critiques of biotechnology include Richard Lewontin's
Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (New York: HarperPerennial,
1992), Jeremy Rifkin's The Biotech Century (New York: Jeremey P. Tarcher/Putnam,
1998), Vandana Shiva's Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge
(Toronto: Between the Lines, 1997).
 A history of biotechnology is given by Robert Bud in The Uses
of Life: A History of Biotechnology (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993).
copyright : E. Thacker 1999