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The Rise and Fall of the Idea of Genetic Information (1948-2006)

On 26 June 2000, during the presentation of the Human Genome Project’s first draft, Bill Clinton, then President of the United States, claimed that “today we are learning the language in which God created life”.1 Behind his remarks lay a story of more than half a century involving the understanding of DNA as information. This paper analyses that story, discussing the origins of the informational view of our genes during the early 1950s, how such a view affected the research on the genetic code (1950s and ‘60s) and the transformation of the information idea in the context of DNA sequencing and bioinformatics (‘80s and ‘90s). The author suggests that the concept of DNA as information reached a climax with the proposal of the Human Genome Project (HGP), but is currently facing a crisis coinciding with the questioning of the information society. Finally, the author discusses the emergence of systems biology as an alternative paradigm.