Bioinformatics & 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. (, 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.[1] 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.[2] 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 and investments.
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).[3] 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 population.
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 "life itself."

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
[1] Examples of press releases from various biotech corporations can be accessed through [], the leading hub for news in the biotech industry.
[2] 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).
[3] 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