Brewing starter product label, 1920s. Akita Konno Shōten records.
The Arts of the Microbial World
The Arts of the Microbial World: Biosynthetic Technologies in Twentieth-Century Japan
This project explores how scientists and skilled workers sought to use microbes’ natural processes for making new products. Methods of microbial biosynthesis were ubiquitous in Japan, from miso-making in the kitchen, to soy-sauce mold starters and vitamins, and to monosodium glutamate and statins which scientists called “gifts from microorganisms.” In brewing houses as well as in the food, fine chemical and pharmaceutical industries across the country, scientists and skilled workers came to study microbial life and to tinker with life as fermentation phenomena.
How did an approach to life as fermentation expand in scope beyond small-scale and traditional industries to a multitude of scientific and industrial fields, from the turn of the twentieth century to the 1960s? I examine the significance of material and intellectual continuities with premodern Japan. Moreover, I reconstruct how fermentation scientists managed the problem of scale, as they aimed to enhance or repress specific micro-processes in cells for the purpose of recalibrating wider agricultural, industrial, and nutritional ecologies in society. How did they draw out the possibilities of what microbes as living things could do? I trace how such broader debates on environmental management impacted material culture at the level of food, resources, and medicine in Japan.
This project investigates the relationship between scientists’ knowledge of microbial processes and their planning of biosynthetic manufacturing methods in twentieth-century Japan. Scientists and skilled workers sought to “borrow” and emulate microbes’ natural processes for making new forms and products of life, from soy-sauce mold starters to vitamins and from monosodium glutamate to statins. In brewing houses and in the food, fine chemical and pharmaceutical industries across the country, they came to study microbial life and to tinker with life as fermentation phenomena. Their distinctive view of life as fermentation crystallized out of new institutions in agricultural science and engineering, which were tied to efforts to improve industries that had existed in pre-modern Japan. Material investigation of the roles microbes performed within industrial processes such as brewing shaped the ways in which scientists framed their fundamental categories of inquiry, as they sought ways to better manage these processes. Over time, approaches emerging from fermentation science showed powerful resilience across the twentieth century, beginning with a tendency to treat microbes as living workers as much as pathogens. Japanese-led innovations in biotechnology in the late 1950s, such as glutamic acid fermentation, bore resemblances to prewar fermentation work in their motivation and design. They included a preoccupation with local problems that stressed economizing resources for self-sufficiency and a commercial focus on local natural products, as well as a vision of microbes as solutions to nutritional and industrial problems.
My project’s central question asks how the approaches of fermentation science expanded in scope to take special prominence in a multitude of industrial fields beyond traditional brewing in Japan. I further ask how fermentation scientists managed the problem of scale which was central to their designs, as they aimed to resize – that is to enhance or repress – specific micro- processes in cells for the purpose of recalibrating macro-ecologies. These larger ecologies ranged from microbes’ different chemical products in a sake barrel or alcohol tank, to vitamins in the national dietary, agricultural and industrial landscape, and to the shares of different companies in the MSG market. Conversely, the project addresses how large-scale organizational planning to establish research associations in antibiotics or amino acids that would enable exchange between players in academia and industry, impacted the translation of local approaches or designs between institutional contexts; in other words, how the Japanese academic-industrial complex in the life sciences functioned. Furthermore, how did it matter to fermentation scientists’ decisions that they worked with life? Why did they ask microbes for “gifts”, or build a mound in a Kyoto temple to commemorate the lives of the microbes who died in their work? How did they articulate their historic relations with other Asian civilizations, which also used molds in fermentation processes? How did these scientists become largely technicians for the state as the twentieth century unfolded, while articulations on the broader questions of the nature of life and ecology as they related to fermentation and microbes were left to writers, philosophers, and other intellectuals?
In particular, there are two historiographical areas where I seek to use methodologies from histories of planning to further my work in the history of science. The first is the question of how to understand technologies that are life processes. As questions on life as technological opportunity come to the fore in a “biological age” of genomics and synthetic biology (Rose, 2012), the concept of planning invites us to build on the literature on materiality in the history of biology and to move from thinking about objects to thinking about processes: how do scientists draw out the possibilities of what living things can do, or be asked to do? Similarly, the notion of planning helps us explore what happens when humans attempt to shift ecologies for a purpose, building on the recent literature on ecological history (Russell, 2003). Secondly, the inclusiveness of planning aids me in examining the role of material and intellectual continuities with pre-modern Japanese work. Bordering on fundamental studies of microbial life and tinkering with the variables in manufacturing processes, art and science, and academia and industry, fermentation science does not fit conventional disciplinary classifications. Its development shows how salient the question of cultural difference remains in twentieth-century science and technology, and how when we look through the eyes of scientists and technologists in another society, we find that experts approach key problems through a different set of categories. To re-examine scientific perspectives is especially critical in a non-Western setting where our assumptions about modern science and technology hide rather than clarify many fundamental changes.