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Biomedicine in museums

Book reviews

By August 17, 2005No Comments

Here is a blog experiment — putting other people’s published reviews of books of interest for the recent-biomedicine project on the blog (in the password protected area, of course, to avoid breaking copyright). All reviewed book will be ordered to the library. Here are three recent reviews from Nature and one from Science. If you find a relevant review, clip-and-paste it into a blog post (and remember to password protect it; password is “novo”

1) A Machine to Make A Future: Biotech Chronicles, by Paul Rabinow and Talia Dan-Cohen, Princeton University Press, 2004, 304 pp., cloth , $24.95, ISBN 0-691-12050-1 (picked up from Nature Biotechnology vol. 23, 935, 2005)

Through a series of interviews with participants and stakeholders, A Machine to Make A Future ‘chronicles’ the life of Celera Diagnostics, extended kin to Celera Genomics, the company whose speed and ambition did so much to accelerate the sequencing of the human genome. But authors Paul Rabinow and Talia Dan-Cohen focus as much on kairos (timing) as chronos (sequential time), and the result reads like an epic in progress, full of sudden and emotional twists, and no promise of resolution. This is highbrow reality TV for biotech geeks: Cut to a close up on Victor Lee, attorney for Celera Diagnostics. RABINOW, off camera: “So you’re not emotionally damaged when the mail comes in?” LEE: “Patent attorneys take rejection very well.”

This emphasis on the affective life of the company will likely resonate with anybody who has tried to tinker together novel configurations of technology and people: “I just wanted to pick up something and throw it at the machine.” And the difficulties of scaling up even an “information” technology like biotech become apparent as the concepts shift from the confident and deliberate practices of “decoding” the genome and become more fluid and turbulent: “We conceptualized how we were going to do it, in terms of moving liquid around in tubes and plates and… quickly came to the conclusion that we were going to do this at a level that no one has attempted to do before in this particular format.”

Because the interviews owe so much to their context, the format is both a strength and a weakness of the book. Much of the account depends upon an understanding of the tacit knowledges and in situ feelings of the participants, and so the reader inevitably wonders after the principles of selection the authors have used with the interview material. Such wonder at an imagined cutting room floor is part of what makes this book so engaging, but it would be worth releasing as much of the archives as possible. Some conversations refer to events to which readers are not privy, and this of course only stokes the reader’s curiosity, like missing evidence in a detective story.

And some of the book’s treatment of the history of genomics has its own missing evidence: Rabinow, for example, frequently characterizes ‘academic critics’ of genomics as do-gooders allergic to corporate imperatives, but fails to mention the consistent and coherent critiques of molecular reductionism from both within and without the sciences that accompanied genomics from the beginning. These critiques (for example, those of Evelyn Fox Keller and Richard Lewontin) questioned the very paradigm that was pushing early genomics, and argued that monocausal genetic accounts of disease were insufficient to the multivariable domains of health. The book indeed chronicles a paradigm shift from monogenic to polygenic accounts of disease, and Celera’s search for “constellations” of genes that would correlate with illness implicitly recognizes the value of those critiques.

Readers and participants alike would likely also welcome a glance at open-source alternatives to patent-based intellectual property paradigms, as within this epic tale star-crossed biotech seems to block its own progress with a constellation—not of genes, but of patents. Given the focus on the corporate context of biotech, readers will also wonder about the role of only minimally transparent capital markets in shaping this particular future. But such wonder is healthy, and the book encourages such wondering with its careful presentation of the messy, real-life contexts in which the health futures of a planet fluctuate and finally cohere into the present.

The book argues both explicitly and implicitly that a future is anything but determined by the present, and after the ambition and speed of 1990s genomics, it is worth pausing to wonder. Close on Kathy Ordonez, president of Celera Genomics, on the completion of the sequencing of the human genome. ORDONEZ: “We suddenly just had time to think!” In this context, A Machine for Making a Future lives up to, is, its title.

2) Trading the Genome, by Bronwyn Parry, Columbia University Press: 2004. 352 pp. $39.50, £25.50 (picked up from Nature 435, 887 (16 June 2005)

The collection, control and commodification of biological resources, historically seen as the common heritage of humanity, have long had a role in the efforts of nations to build and maintain their economic and political power. One of the earliest and most ambitious projects of this sort was the proposal made to Britain’s King George III to transplant breadfruit from Tahiti to serve as a source of food for slaves in the West Indies. A mutiny on the ship chosen to transport the plants — the Bounty — quickly brought to an end the first major state-supported attempt by the scientific community to relocate economic plants.

More recently, advances in biotechnology and information technology have transformed the processes involved in the collection, transport and storage of biological resources and the information they contain. A new surge in collection in the 1980s was fuelled by improvements in the ability to isolate compounds from plants and animals, coupled with regulatory mechanisms enabling patents to be obtained over them. This time, however, developing countries, the primary source of biological resources, strongly resisted what some saw as biocolonialism. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of 1992 was intended to respond to this conflict and ensure the equitable sharing of benefits derived from the access to, and use of, genetic resources. But the convention has so far had only limited success, and at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, calls were made for the negotiation of an international regime on access and benefit sharing (ABS).

The history of biodiversity collection, and the transformation and commodification of genetic material, is the subject of Trading the Genome by Bronwyn Parry. Reviewing both the technological and the regulatory history of the gene trade, Parry’s book provides insight into the complex problems facing the global community in regulating the access to, and the use of, genetic resources. With negotiations for the development of an international ABS regime due to begin in earnest in January 2006 in Spain, this publication is particularly timely.

Focusing her research on a number of key US initiatives, including those involving the National Cancer Institute and the US pharmaceutical industry, Parry reviews their collection, research and product-development practices, and long-term objectives. She persuasively argues that the end of large-scale bioprospecting is drawing close. Ever more sophisticated means of synthesizing and replicating collected material, as well as of mining both living and dried specimens in ex situ collections, will remove the need for much in situ bioprospecting. And combinatorial chemistry will replace the need to find resources in the wild.

Refreshingly, Parry contests the frequently posited position that combinatorial chemistry is free of all benefit-sharing obligations, and notes the need to close the legal loophole regarding pre-CBD collections. One key conclusion is the need to develop effective means of tracing the many and extensive uses of genetic resources and derived informational products. Unfortunately, her study does not refer to the work of the CBD in this area, in particular to the ongoing study of the practicalities, feasibility and cost of certificates of origin as a means of tracing the flow of genetic resources. I would also have liked to see more in-depth analysis of potential technological means of responding to the challenges of resource transformation and the monitoring of direct and indirect uses of genetic information.

Parry comes to the conclusion that further efforts to secure regulatory control are misplaced, suggesting instead that countries should seek alternative benefit-sharing mechanisms. She also suggests the establishment of an international trust for benefit sharing, an idea that is to some extent akin to the model included in the recently adopted International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. However, her failure to expand on this area of research and place it within the context of the ongoing ABS negotiation process weakens the value of what could have been a more substantial and reasoned proposal.

Overall, however, the book is a welcome addition to the literature and will be a valuable resource for researchers, decision-makers and members of the public who are interested in understanding what happens to genetic resources after they have been collected. It will provide little in the way of policy insight for veterans of the bioprospecting debate, but its organized presentation of the transformation of the bioprospecting trade and of the development of bioinformatics is well worth the read. However, its conclusions need to be considered in the light of recent developments. Among these are efforts by developed countries to adopt so-called ‘user measures’ to regulate the use of imported genes; debates in the CBD, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the World Trade Organization on proposals to include obligations to disclose the origin of genetic resources in patent applications; and work examining the feasibility, practicality and cost of mechanisms, such as certificates of origin to track flows of genetic resources, as described in a United Nations University report (

3) Conversations in Genetics: an Oral History of our Intellectual Heritage in Genetics, Vols 1 and 2. Edited by Rochelle Easton Esposito. The Genetics Society of America 2004, 2005; $120 for 5 DVDs; $30 for 1 DVD (picked from Nature Cell Biology 7, 557 (2005)

Interviewing is a technique for creating a historical document. When historians interview for their own research, they take on the unusual role of helping to create the documents that they then analyse and interpret. The historian is, of course, less knowledgeable than the interviewee about the subject matter. A good interviewer uses this fact to elicit anecdotes and explanations that give meaning and context to the subject. But the historian’s relative ignorance may also mean that they lack the technical or cultural knowledge to ask the crucial questions. Another approach is the peer interview, in which a professional colleague asks the questions. A peer interviewer may achieve a level of intimacy with both the interviewee and the subject matter that a historian or trained interviewer cannot. But that intimacy can also make the interview cryptic, like an old married couple finishing one another’s sentences. Furthermore, for lack of experience, peer-interviewers often commit errors — leading the subject, interrupting the subject, being inconsistent from interview to interview, and so forth — that practiced interviewers learn to avoid.

As its title suggests, Conversations in Genetics is a series of peer interviews. The ten DVDs each contain a video interview with a leading figure in genetics: Lee Hartwell, François Jacob, Ed Lewis, Arno Motulsky, Evelyn Witkin, James F. Crow, Seymour Benzer, Ira Herskowitz, Janet Rowley and Dan Lindsley. The interviewers — including Alfred Knudson, Mary-Claire King, Jasper Rine and Daniel Hartl — are distinguished researchers in their own right. The videos have a faculty-club feel: the campus legend chats comfortably with another luminary, while we eavesdrop from an adjacent table.

The pleasures of peer interviews are abundant here. It is delightful to see the mutual affection of Al Knudson and Janet Rowley, or Lucy Shapiro’s reverence for François Jacob. The interviews are all strong on the science. Daniel Hartl can ask his former supervisor Jim Crow about obscure papers that give a real sense of the span of his career. Rochelle Easton Esposito can keep pace with Lee Hartwell as he leads her through the intricacies of his pioneering work in cell-cycle genetics.

Yet the weaknesses of peer interviewing are also evident. In part, because the interviewers have no core question set, details of the subjects’ childhoods, family lives and career paths are patchy. Lewis tells us where he was born and something about growing up; Jacob, however, seems to begin life in the army. The scientific discussions are often elliptical: Ira Herskowitz need not stop to explain the rudiments of yeast genetics to Jasper Rine, though an eavesdropper might wish for a quick review. Nevertheless, the videos contain many minor ‘eureka’ moments, such as Ed Lewis explaining that in the 1950s, the fruit fly — now considered an ideal model organism for developmental biology — was thought useless for embryological work.

The selection of interview subjects is puzzling. At first, the roster appears to give even coverage across the discipline: there are two fly geneticists, two yeast geneticists, three microbial geneticists, and three human geneticists. This tracks the current emphasis of the Genetics Society of America, which produced the project — except for the human geneticists. There are other anomalies. The set contains no mouse geneticists, nor any plant geneticists, although the Genetics Society of America has a long and distinguished history in plant genetics. (One plant geneticist, Elliot Meyerowitz, is planned to appear in a future volume.) Geographically, the interviewees are all at American universities — except for Jacob, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The rest of the set has an odd west-coast tilt, with a centre of mass at the California Institute of Technology. If this series were your only guide, you might think the eastern seaboard a minor outpost of genetics.

The series does present real diversity of approach, inspiration and influence. Some, such as Herskowitz, Benzer, Hartwell, Witkin and Lewis, were interested in science from a young age, while others, such as Jacob and Rowley, developed their research passions later in life. Rowley and Lindsley were collectors of stamps and butterflies, whereas Benzer and Hartwell were dissectors of radios and frogs. A love of music is a common theme. (Herskowitz’s set of scientific adaptations of folksongs, such as, ‘I’ve been workin’ on the genome,’ is a corny treat.) Rowley’s progressive mother insisted that she finish medical school before she got married. Herskowitz’s father was a distinguished scientist. Lewis came from a poor family without academic ties. Motulsky relates the harrowing tale of his escape from Nazi Germany in 1939 on the SS St Louis.

The peer-interviewing format — as well as the editing necessary to make each conversation fit onto one DVD — limits these videos’ historical value. The interviews contain few segments that will change significantly our understanding of classic experiments. Their pedagogical value, however, is greater. An index of scenes or topics would have greatly aided professors who wish to use clips from the interviews in their courses. Nevertheless, the examples of genetic reasoning, experimental style and scientific inspiration contained in these conversations will be a boon to teachers looking for a fresh way to show their students the ideas, methods and, above all, the joy of science.

4) The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture, by Eugene Thacker, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005. 440 pp. $39.95, £25.95. ISBN 0-262-20155-0. Leonardo Books (is already inthe library)

No species, except humans, deliberately transmits nonbiological data across hundreds, even thousands, of years. Memories of light, sounds, touch, and smells fade and disappear. For all other species, all that is left over time is instinct, a mother’s quick lessons, and nature’s harsh tests. Meanwhile, humans survive and thrive by becoming ever smarter at transmitting and absorbing ever-increasing amounts of data. We can recall what humans learned last month, last year, last century, and last millennium.
The way we record and transmit this knowledge keeps changing. In 1900, serious diplomacy without speaking French would have been laughable, and serious science without reading German would have been difficult indeed. By 1980, global business without some understanding of English would have been a hard slog. By 2000, launching a completely nondigital business would have taken a lot of work.

As the dominant language changes, those who adapt and adopt tend to become dominant. Cave wall paintings were enough to show how to light a fire or hunt a mammoth, but they were not enough to transition from tribe to empire. For that development, drawings had to become standardized into hieroglyphs or writing. They also had to be portable–on stone, clay, papyrus, velum, or paper. As a 20-odd-letter code permeated Europe, the printing press allowed rapid reproduction and dissemination of knowledge; Christianity increasingly lost its grasp, and information, books, and knowledge exploded.

Over the last three or four decades, the dominant alphabet shifted yet again because it became possible to collapse all words, written or spoken, in all alphabets and languages, into two-bit notation. And one could do the same with every piece of music and every image, moving or still. Societies and regions that went digital early enjoyed an explosive growth in wealth and power.

Now, as DNA, cDNA, RNA, proteins, tissues, brain scans, and a host of other data generate a language of life sciences, the dominant code is changing yet again. Life sciences last century was primarily about mapping and decoding; biotechnology relied primarily on relatively small alterations of existing genomes. But as we begin to decipher the world’s most powerful and complex coding system, that of life, we begin to alter, directly and deliberately, the evolution of many species, including ourselves.

Once we map the DNA of an orange, we understand, on one level, how the source code works. Tweak that code a little and the orange becomes a grapefruit, a tangerine, or a lemon. Tweak it a little more, and it begins to generate vaccines against diarrhea. This ability to alter life forms increasingly permeates aspects of our daily life. Visits to the doctor’s office are becoming data- and informatics-driven experiences. Our foods are very different from the foods of our great-grandparents, and increasingly engineered. We are finding many links between the types of questions we ask in biology and computing. Businesses that formerly worked far from the fields of biology are increasingly driven by genomics and other biological data.

In The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture, Eugene Thacker attempts to describe this transition in the dominant alphabet from various perspectives. The book ambitiously tries to follow the ever-expanding ripples the genetic code is propagating in the pond of civilization. The author (an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology) deconstructs the meaning of words and molecules. He asks us to think of DNA as wet (in the test tube), dry (coded on a computer), and commercial (patented). Considering how knowledge of DNA helps shape thought, society, wealth, and power, Thacker explores the question raised by Schrodinger: “What is life?” Biomaterials are often stored, represented, and exchanged through computers. As the molecule dematerializes, it becomes, in Thacker’s mind, “inseparable from all philosophical, scientific, and economic mediations.”

Thacker relies on vast streams of voices. The book runs though discourses based on how Marx, Foucault, von Neumann, Canguilhem, Shannon, Wallerstein, and other worthies would view bioinformatics and genomics. The author publishes in Ars Electronica, Culture Machine, Postmodern Culture, Cultural Critique, Theory and Event, and Dialectical Anthropology. Not surprisingly, the book has chapters on “a political economy of the genomic body,” biocolonialism, bioinfowar, and “tactical media and bioart.” Throw in a little blogging, experimental science fiction, and multimedia, and at times Thacker reads like a Jacques Derrida of biotechnology, deconstructing texts in a sometimes contradictory fashion. In Thacker’s world, the “point cannot be stressed enough: bioinformatics is as material as it is immaterial, all the while constituted by an informatic approach to the biological domain.”

Thacker’s is an interesting mind that wanders in and explores many directions. The Global Genome is a book likely to trigger very different thoughts, associations, and reactions from each reader. As he begins to rely more on his own voice and less on those of others and as he simplifies and clarifies what he has to say, Thacker’s journey of discovery in future articles and books will probably be worth following. He is exploring a path taken by many art critics in the 1960s and 1970s, where the writing and critique of what was on the pedestal or on the wall meant as much as the artwork itself. But today, to quote Derrida, “a critique of what I do is indeed impossible.”

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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