In this paper, we analyse how human bodies are understood and viewed in bioinformatics, partly based on participant observations of a basic bioinformatics course and interviews with bioinformatics researchers. With the proliferation of genomic data, bioinformatics has come to play a crucial role in developments in the biological and biomedical sciences. It is thus worth looking at the role of bioinformatics in current understandings of human bodies. Our analysis shows that bodies in this context can be understood as networked and calculable, along the lines of the analytical logic of informatics. Central to this view are the genome sequences that do not, as in earlier narratives on genes as essentially informational, contain bodies completely. Rather, bodies are enacted as accessible through these sequences. In the process, bodies are continuously matched to the digital image of a normal body. This normal body is an ideal rather than an average body, an ideal that arises from the possibilities and restrictions of science and computer technologies.
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We will focus on molecular biology, genetics and genomics as the specific sites of developments within biology that we describe in this paper. There is a difference between those fields. Molecular biology has a broader focus on biological processes on the molecular level, genetics specifically looks at single genes or sets of genes and genomics looks at entire genomes or large parts of it. Since these fields greatly overlap in their approaches and are intertwined in their history and since the differences are not the focus of our research, we do use them more or less as interchangeable. That is to say, reference to one of them may include the others.
These are notes from Jan van Baren-Nawrocka, who is the ‘I’ in these observations.
The ‘we’ in these observations refer to the students that follow the classes.
Those bioinformatics skills were tested later in a small project that involved using the bioinformatics tools they had familiarised ourselves with during the course.
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The manuscript is comprised of original material that is not under review elsewhere. All interviewees have been informed that the interview data would be anonymised and used for a research project on bioinformatics and human identity. None of the authors have any competing interests—intellectual or financial—in the research detailed in the manuscript.
Funding was provided by Centre for Society and Genomics (NL).
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Appendix 1: amino acid table
Appendix 2: example question
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van Baren-Nawrocka, J., Consoli, L. & Zwart, H. Calculable bodies: Analysing the enactment of bodies in bioinformatics. BioSocieties 15, 90–114 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-019-00143-x
- Sequence data
- Human bodies
- Calculable bodies