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Rights statement: © This is a pre-copyedited version of an article accepted for publication in Information & Culture following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version is available through the University of Texas Press
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The claim that genes encode and transmit information is a central conceptual tenet in biomedicine. Historians have placed the origins of this claim in the rise of molecular biology after World War II, and philosophers still debate the utility of understanding genes as information for biomedical research. In this article, I will investigate how “genetic information” as both a concept and a model for experimental practice was affected by the emergence in the mid-1970s of technologies that enabled scientists to determine the sequence of chemical units of DNA, the molecule that constitutes genetic material. I argue that DNA sequencing, rather than changing the meaning of genetic information, transformed the possibilities of what could be achieved with this concept and directed it to large-scale enterprises such as the Human Genome Project. Thus, my argument suggests that scientific concepts should be regarded as entities that, beyond abstract thinking, enable researchers to do things—in this case, embarking on a multi-million-dollar project aimed at sequencing the information encoded in the human genome.