- Bioinformatics and Bio-logics
Combining approaches from media studies and science studies, this essay explores the relationship between genetic and computer “codes” through a consideration of the burgeoning field of “bioinformatics”—the development and application of computer technologies to life science research. Bioinformatics ranges in its use from online genomic and proteomic databases to the use of software for gene discovery and protein folding analysis. It is linked to the software industry, governmental-corporate life science research, and application in “in silico biology,” medical genetic diagnostics, and database management. As a direct intersection of computer science and molecular biology, bioinformatics promises to transform the study of biological life into computation, where particular gene-protein interactions and even entire cells can be informatically understood through the use of computer technology. This essay provides a critical analysis of several bioinformatics systems, such as BLAST (a standard genome analysis tool). Focusing on the ways in which bioinformatics software contextualizes biological materiality, the essay argues that bioinformatics is a practice of “biomedia,” or the informatic recontextualization of biological components and processes. Bioinformatics thus privileges an informatic approach to the body, while evincing a deep investment in the ways in which biological materiality can be technically enhanced; the body becomes a technology, but a technology geared towards the production of a biotechnical body.
It is often noted that progress in biotechnology research is as much a technological feat as a medical one. The field of “bioinformatics” is exemplary here, since it is playing a significant role in the various genome projects, the study of stem cells, gene targeting and drug development, medical diagnostics, and genetic medicine generally. Bioinformatics may simply be described as the application of computer science to molecular biology research. The development of biological databases (many of them online), gene sequencing computers, computer languages (such as XML-based standards), and a wide array of software tools (from pattern-matching algorithms to data mining agents), are all examples of innovations by means of which bioinformatics is transforming the traditional molecular biology laboratory. Some especially optimistic reports on these developments have suggested that the “wet” lab of traditional biology is being replaced by the “dry” lab of “point-and-click biology.” 1 Production Sequencing Facility at Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, CA
Production Sequencing Facility at Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, CA
While current uses of bioinformatics are mostly pragmatic (technology-as-tool) and instrumental (forms of intellectual property and patenting), the issues which bioinformatics raises are simultaneously philosophical and technical. These issues have already begun to be explored in a growing body of critical work that approaches genetics and biotechnology from the perspective of language, textuality, and the various scripting tropes within molecular biology. The approach taken here, however, will be different. While critiques of molecular biology-as-text can effectively illustrate the ways in which bodies, texts, and contexts are always intertwined, I aim to interrogate the philosophical claims made by the techniques and technologies that molecular biotech designs for itself. Such an approach requires an inquiry into the materialist ontology that “informs” fields such as bioinformatics, managing as it does the relationships between the in vivo, the in vitro, and the in silico.
Such questions have to do with how the intersection of genetic and computer codes is transforming the very definition of “the biological”—not only within bioinformatics but within molecular biotechnology as a whole. Thus, when we speak of the intersections of genetic and computer codes, we are not discussing the relationships between body and text, or material and semiotic registers, for this belies the complex ways in which “the body” has been enframed by genetics and biotechnology in recent years.
What follows is a critical analysis of several types of bioinformatics systems, emphasizing how the technical details of software and programming are indissociable from these larger philosophical questions of biological “life.” The argument that will be made is that bioinformatics is much more than simply the “computerization” of genetics and molecular biology; it forms a set of practices that instantiate ontological claims about the ways in which the relationships between materiality and data, genetic and computer codes, are being transformed through biotech research.