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Biomedicine in museums

CFP: Protein and DNA sequences as scientific objects

By January 29, 2008No Comments

Bruno Strasser at Yale University and Marianne Sommer at ETH
Zurich are organising a small workshop at Yale, 21-22 June, 2008 of potentially great interest for future biomedical museological practices. Under the title ‘Making Sequences Matter: Collecting, Comparing, Computing’ the workshop will focuse on “the emergence, development and diversification of protein and DNA sequences as scientific objects and tools for producing knowledge in the life sciences and particularly in evolution”. Here’s the workshop platform:

In the history of science, life has been conceptualized and manipulated through a number of different ontological entities such as populations, species, organisms, cells and molecules. In the course of their own histories, these epistemic objects have been linked to specific scientific representations and practices, and have lent themselves to particular social uses. During the second half of the 20th century, a new scientific object has progressively become a central focus: the protein and DNA sequence. Sequences have come to be viewed as one of the most fundamental units of life. As such, they are implicated in a number of intellectual endeavors of the biomedical sciences, and have come to redefine key elements of modernity. Sequences have been granted the power to define collective descent and individual destiny, they adjudicate ethnicity, paternity, felony, and citizenship; they are markers for disease susceptibilities, race-specific drugs, and personalized medicine. They underlie the academic and public debates about the dystopia of a genetically stratified society.

The workshop focuses on the emergence, development and diversification of protein and DNA sequences as scientific objects and tools for research in the life sciences and particularly in evolution. The standard story about how sequences became so prominent has emphasized the development of automated sequencing technologies in the context of large-scale genomics projects. However, long before genomics, sequences of DNA and proteins have been collected, compared, and computed in order to take a fresh look at long-standing questions concerning classification, phylogeny, and evolution.

To make sequences matter, collecting practices for sequence information, mathematical algorithms for sequence comparison, and computer technologies for sequence representation had to be developed. In the process, sequences gained epistemic and political currency, challenging the boundaries of scientific disciplines, established practices, and accepted knowledge. The authority of protein and DNA sequences was not restricted to academic endeavors, however. As key to a natural order underlying the chaotic appearance of the living world, and to the evolutionary relationships of human populations, they have gained broad cultural currency. In the workshop we will approach these historical, social, and cultural processes from an interdisciplinary perspective. By bringing together
historians, social scientists, and scientific actors, we will explore how and why sequences were collected, compared, and computed, how they were made to matter for questions of evolution, and how they became relevant in popular and commercial contexts.

300 word abstracts shall be sent to by 1 March. Papers will be due by 1 June, to be pre-circulated before the workshop.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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