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Mapping and sequencing information: the social context for the genomics revolution

In 1983, after devoting some eight years of his life to the description of how a nematode worm develops from an embryo into an adult, molecular biologist John Sulston embarked on a remarkably different project: he decided to map the worm’s genome. Sulston’s impulsive desire to characterise this creature’s DNA from start to finish offers only a partial explanation for this transition. Instead, a close examination of the wider social context for this ‘moment’ in molecular biology gives a more rewarding explanation of Sulston’s intellectual leap. This reveals a world in which biotechnology gradually adapted to and integrated into an ‘information society’ increasingly dependent on the creation, distribution and manipulation of information. The application of computing to DNA during the first half of the 1980s was crucial for this integration, fostering the emergence of genomics and ultimately the Human Genome Project.