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History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences - Vol. 33, no. 1 (2011)
Article

Miguel García-Sancho, From Metaphor to Practices: the Introduction of “Information Engineers” into the First DNA Sequence Database


Abstract

This paper explores the introduction of professional systems engineers and information management practices into the first centralized DNA sequence database, developed at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) during the 1980s. In so doing, it complements the literature on the emergence of an information discourse after World War II and its subsequent influence in biological research. By the careers of the database creators and the computer algorithms they designed, analyzing, from the mid-1960s onwards information in biology gradually shifted from a pervasive metaphor to be embodied in practices and professionals such as those incorporated at the EMBL. I then investigate the reception of these database professionals by the EMBL biological staff, which evolved from initial disregard to necessary collaboration as the relationship between DNA, genes, and proteins turned out to be more complex than expected. The trajectories of the database professionals at the EMBL suggest that the initial subject matter of the historiography of genomics should be the long-standing practices that emerged after World War II and to a large extent originated outside biomedicine and academia. Only after addressing these practices, historians may turn to their further disciplinary assemblage in fields such as bioinformatics or biotechnology.


Keywords

DNA, database, cybernetics, information, systems engineering, genomics,bioinformatics


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