Un projet Labex Arts H2H
en /fr
2012 - 2016

Reading and (Re)Writing Genomes: Techno-Epistemic Events and BioPolitical Complexities
By John Johnston

Emory University, Atlanta


According to what became known as the Central Dogma, running the DNA “code script” produces a simple, one-way result: DNA makes RNA makes protein. The nucleus of a biological cell thus contains the necessary components of an information system that can store (in DNA), transmit (in RNA) and “run” (in the ribosome) coded sequences that produce proteins as the output. This dogma is actually multi-dimensional – scientific and technological, but also discursive, institutional and historical. Pursuing the trajectory of Lily Kay’s examination of the scriptive metaphor embedded in the Central Dogma (and thus of the agency and materiality of code), my paper will focus on the genetic code elaborated in the twenty-five years from Watson and Crick to Jacob and Monod, and then, in the next twenty-five years, on how this picture of the genome is greatly complicated by the discovery of how the genome can be re-written (e.g., by retroviruses), of “junk DNA” and the complexities of epigenetics. Yet, despite these complexities, J. Craig Venter will deploy technological ingenuity in inventing a new and faster “shotgun” method of sequencing genomes – both human and those of previously unknown species. He will then produce a form of artificial life by transplanting an artificially constructed genome into the body of a bacterium cell. Venter’s successes –narrated in his two books, A Life Decoded and Life at the Speed of Light-- are at the heart of my paper. Indeed, my objective is both to appreciate Venter’s accomplishments and to show how he avoids or “works around” the genome’s more complex capabilities. Thus I will also present Mae-Wan Ho’s contrasting view of a “fluid and adaptable genome.” Ho theorizes that the genome’s capacity to re-program itself is a visible though unpredictable aspect of the whole biological organism’s adaptive response to environmental conditions. For Ho, such adaptive mutations suggest a very different understanding of the genome, specifically as “a complex regulatory system for carrying out the ‘natural genetic engineering’ on which life depends”, and thus responsible for more than the organism’s reproduction. The organism’s natural genetic engineering, she argues, contrasts starkly with “the artificial genetic engineering” which in the 1970s became a huge, lucrative industry, financing a high proportion of research in the biosciences ever since. In these terms Venter represents not only an economically motivated return to the Central Dogma but a new form of biotech power that obscures and displaces the actual complexity of current scientific understanding of the genome, and with seriously negative ecological implications. 

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Un projet Labex Arts H2H