Special issue published: ‘The sequences and the sequencers’

Cover of Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences journalAfter several years of analysis and interpretation of datasets and networks concerning publications reporting new DNA sequences, the TRANSGENE collaboration can announce the release of five papers reporting our findings in the journal Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences. The special issue demonstrates the mixed-methods approach used and developed by the multi-disciplinary collaboration, which involved moving between the quantitative and network-based analysis and more qualitative modes of research, such as reviews of literature, oral history interviews, and inspection of archives and other historical records. In the three papers in the middle of the issue, this overall approach is pursued in distinct ways to develop the history of human, yeast and pig genomics.

For human genomics, the paper explores a collaboration between medical genetics laboratories – who were not involved in the Human Genome Project (HGP) – and the private company Celera who rivalled the HGP in attempting to sequence the whole human genome. This collaboration, around human chromosome 7, demonstrated that the separation between medical genetics and the mainline large-scale genomics represented by the HGP was contingent, and the divisions between smaller-scale genetics and large-scale infrastructures could – and did – break down when it suited both sides. In the case of Celera, their business model encouraged them to seek partners in medical genetics to help enrich their proprietary datasets and establish the means to develop diagnostic and therapeutic innovations using their data. For the medical geneticists, working with Celera and its highly-refined infrastructure for generating and processing sequence data would enable them to improve the canonical sequence of a key chromosome for their research.

The paper concerning yeast genomics focuses on some private DNA sequencing companies in Germany and the Biozentrum research institution in Switzerland, which inspection of the clusters in the co-authorship network for this species revealed as bridging the European Commission-funded Yeast Genome Sequencing Project with other groups and projects, particularly in North America. In examining these companies and Biozentrum, this work is as much a contribution to the distinct history of biotechnology in Europe as well as yeast genomics, and also reveals details of the way in which Europe and North America interacted during and after the projects to sequence the yeast genome (1989-1996), the ways in which yeast biologists contributed to genomic research, and the late-twentieth century European model of organising genomics.

The study of pig genomics highlights the significance of bricolage, the repurposing of existing resources for new applications. While these practices are present across genomics and scientific research more broadly, they have been particularly salient in pig genomics. Using this as an organising concept, the paper identifies three sets of institutions based on an assessment of two metrics concerning their publishing activity: agricultural, systematic (conducting research on evolution, diversity and related topics) and hybrid. The institutions in these sets exhibit particular forms of bricolage and modes of collaboration. Intriguingly, over the period covered by this research (1990-2015), the authors discerned a shift from dominance by the agriculturally-inclined institutions towards the more systematically-oriented. The inflection point, in the mid-2000s, was when the Swine Genome Sequencing Project – involving many of the agriculturally-inclined institutions – was producing and publishing data on the pig genome. The availability of this resource enabled new institutions to publish and therefore appear in our dataset, and fresh forms of collaboration to be forged, often in the systematic mode. This also affected institutions who had long been involved in pig genomics, who were able to use the new reference sequence to conduct novel kinds of research. The paper highlights one, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, who shifted from a more agriculturally-inclined mode to a systematic one. This changed the pattern of their collaborations, from a few Spanish or intra-institutional partners, towards larger international networks. In so doing, it made the institution much more central and well-connected in the co-authorship networks. Without centering the production of a reference genome, this paper was able to identify its salience as a bricolaged resource through an examination of trends and types of collaborative activity preceding it, paralleling it and succeeding it.

The issue closes with a reflection on how the different ways in which the overall mixed-methods approach has enabled the history of genomics to be thickened. Recognising that the precise methods and datasets developed and used may not be applicable beyond genomics, or even certain kinds of genomics, the authors suggest other forms of data and ways of generating resources from which to construct networks or other representations of collaboration.

All of the papers are available with full open-access here.

The authors of the special issue and all individual papers are: Miguel García-Sancho, Rhodri Leng, James Lowe, Niki Vermeulen, Gil Viry and Mark Wong.


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