Project (2008-2009)

The Two Genomics. Ideology, Insider’s History, and Material Practices: The Birth of a Scientific Belief

The field of research that came to be known as “genomics” emerged in the 1980s from various initiatives dedicated to the genetic or physical mapping of chromosomes and to DNA sequencing. It has since become a prominent field of research in molecular biology, associated with various promises ranging from the development of new therapeutic drugs (and in particular cancer therapies) to expected renewals of the scientific understanding of genetics and biology in general. Several achievements have indeed been highly celebrated, such as the publication in 1995 of the first complete sequence of the genome of an organism (the genome of the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae), or the completion of the first phase of the human genome sequencing in 2001. Moreover, genomic research has evolved in close connection the simultaneous growth experienced in the biotechnology industry of which it has become a significant segment, and has thus elicited a considerable amount of interest from policy makers, private industry, and the general public. Despite all the claims, expectations, and praises, little is known about this field of research, whose importance for the general course of biology has yet to be evaluated and whose history remains to be written. Vincent Ramillon's project therefore aimed to further our understanding of the material, cultural, and social history of genomics, through a combination of historical analysis and situated case studies.

The first phase of research was focused on the material practices specific to genomics. This formed the basis of several developments, including an extended analysis of the material practices of genomics. This was achieved partly through studies of technologies, automation, and production processes, but also by investigating the development of managerial skills with their own specific sets of techniques. A different but related line of inquiry questioned the links between the “industrialization” of genomics in automated facilities and the industrialization of other bioprocesses (vaccine production, screening of chemicals, drug development etc.). The importance of scale-up procedures for industrial needs has of course been analyzed for a variety of biomedical products, yet it seems to remain far more elusive with regard to molecular genetics itself, whose industrial applications are generally described through the prism of technical innovations, enabling technologies, legal regulations, science privatization, or social issues.

Lastly, Vincent Ramillon's project studied the role of computerization in the history of genomics, which remains very clearly one of the weakest points in most items of research conducted on the history or sociology of genomics, and whose extent or significance is presently very difficult to evaluate. This question should not only be studied in itself, but should also be understood in connection with production practices in general and linked to the processes of labor division, automation, specialization of production facilities, resource management, and material circulations among laboratory network.