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From the Genetic to the Computer Program: The Historicity of ‘Data’ and ‘Computation’ in the Investigations on the Nematode Worm C. elegans (1963-1998)

Garcia-Sancho, M

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences   43 (1) 16-28

DOI: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2011.10.002

March 2012

This paper argues that the history of the computer, of the practice of computation and of the notions of ‘data’ and ‘programme’ are essential for a critical account of the emergence and implications of data-driven research. In order to show this, the author focusses on the transition that the investigations on the worm C. elegans experienced in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology of Cambridge (UK). Throughout the 1980s, this research programme evolved from a study of the genetic basis of the worm’s development and behaviour to a DNA mapping and sequencing initiative. By examining the changing computing technologies which were used at the Laboratory, the author demonstrates that by the time of this transition researchers shifted from modelling the worm’s genetic programme on a mainframe apparatus to writing minicomputer programs aimed at providing map and sequence data which was then circulated to other groups working on the genetics of C. elegans. The shift in the worm research should thus not be simply explained in the application of computers which transformed the project from hypothesis-driven to a data-intensive endeavour. The key factor was rather a historically specific technology—in-house and easy programmable minicomputers—which redefined the way of achieving the project’s long-standing goal, leading the genetic programme to co-evolve with the practices of data production and distribution.