Frank Hartmann on 11 Feb 2001 14:06:06 -0000

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<nettime> Genome - the postmodern bible

Presenting three billion base pairs of the human DNA, scientists manage
quench our culture's thirst for a central text. Once again, the metaphor
of the book plays a central role in the latest findings of genetic
research, as if a linear narrative finally is there to tell us something
about the meaning of life or what makes the difference of being human.

As announced end of last year, Craig Venter from CELERA genomics and
some 250 co-authors have just published "The sequence of the Human
Genome" in the magazine SCIENCE. The editorial opening reads: "Humanity
has been given a great gift. With the completion of the human genome
sequence, we have received a powerful tool for unlocking the secrets of
our genetic heritage and for finding our place among the other
participants in the adventure of life."

Metaphors at large are: reading the book of life, decoding the secrets
of life - tons of journalistic trash is ahead, including comparisons to
the "landing on the Moon, splitting the atom and even inventing the
wheel" ...

Researcher Francis Collins also worked on the human genome sequence,
leading the HUMAN GENOME PROJECT, a public funded research consortium by
16 worldwide institutions with hundreds of researchers in laboratories
across the world cooperating. They published their draft of the genome
in this week's issue of NATURE, after a race between Celera and the
public consortium to publish the sequence - also a race for NATURE and
SCIENCE, as well as the question of public–private access to the data
which possibly will be restricted by CELERA's copyrights. Collins and
Venter together announced the genome to be decoded in June 2000 to then
retreat from cooperation to write up their findings and run them trough
peer-review before publishing the results in SCIENCE and NATURE. But who
is the winner of the race?

There is a remarkable emphasis on the SEIZE of data, if you compare the
opening sentence of the abstract: "A 2.91-billion base pair (bp)
consensus sequence of the euchromatic portion of the human genome was
generated by the whole-genome shotgun sequencing method. The
14.8-billion bp DNA sequence was generated over 9 months from 27,271,853
high-quality sequence reads (5.11-fold coverage of the genome) from both
ends of plasmid clones made from the DNA of five individuals." Should
the tremendous amaount of information glorify a secret source, imposing
a pattern for growth, a creative machine of sorts working in the same
style with organisms? Or the sequencing machines and computerized
assembling strategies Venter's company, enable by huge investments for
securing fastest publication and copyrights therefore?

And so, what is there to read in the new bible? Not much so far. This
'draft' of a decoding not necessarily includes a meaning. There is a
'text' with far too many gaps to be filled, says NATURE: "there lie
several more 'omes to be decoded, all of which might be needed to help
us read our newly obtained book of life. First could be the
'transcriptome' — the complete set of RNA molecules produced by the
genome. Further off still is the 'proteome' — the full complement of
proteins encoded by the genome."

The outlook on a new biology includes a theory of the cell as a kind of
community, relying on networks like transportation, supply or
information networks - on an organic level, the connectivity structure
would resemble social networks with molecules interacting, providing a
possible model of how one gene interacts with others in the genome.

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