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Open Reading Frames: The Genome and the Media

Mike Fortun

The past twelve months has been an incredible year for the science and business of genomics. Seemingly endless media attention was paid to genomics, educating and entertaining scientists, historians and anthropologists of genomics like myself, high-rolling and casual investors, or anybody just plain interested in how our bodies and their parts are being re-analyzed, re-conceptualized, and re-invested in multiple ways in the economic, social, and cultural structures in which we live. A year ago you couldn't escape the almost daily stories about the breakdown in negotiations between Celera and the government-backed Human Genome Project over the complete sequence of the human genome and access to it.

In mid-March last year, the NASDAQ began its crash, or "necessary correction," if you prefer, sparked in part by the widely misunderstood statement by President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair concerning DNA patenting. June 2000 brought the White House pomp and circumstance, with Tony Blair videoconferencing into the high state ritual, that seemed to join Francis Collins and Craig Venter at the hip for all their subsequent television appearances, cheerfully discussing the joint completion of the human genome sequence. In July, deCODE Genetics - the extremely controversial genomics company operating in Iceland that I've been following most closely for the last 3 years, and which I'll talk some about today - had its successful IPO on NASDAQ, rasing $194 million. And this February saw the competing, or complementary, publications in Science and Nature offering the first analyses of the full human genome.

Obviously, the genome and the media are both impossibly large phenomena, even if we restrict ourselves to last year, and no one has yet invented the analogue of the ABI Prism 3700 that would allow us to rapidly sequence such a welter of historical and social events with remarkable comprehensiveness and, with luck, comprehension.

But that's just fine, since one of the things we've had re-confirmed from the complete DNA sequences churned out by batteries of ABI Prism 3700's is that organisms are not completely about complete sequences. Some other kinds of reading practices are demanded. As Craig Venter and his 273 co-authors wrote in the February 16 issue of Science: "The enumeration of other "parts lists" reveals that in organisms with complex nervous systems, neither gene number, neuron number, nor number of cell types correlates in any meaningful manner with even simplistic measures of structural or behavioral complexity. Nor would they be expected to; this is the realm of nonlinearities and epigenesis."[Venter, 2001 #111]

Since the task of reading organisms now demands reading for nonlinear and epigenetic or emergent effects, this should be an area where life scientists and historians and anthropologists of the life sciences might learn a few reading strategies from each other. Which is one of the reasons why I chose "Open Reading Frames" for a title. An "open reading frame," or ORF, in DNA sequences terms is a sequence that doesn't have a stop codon that would halt transcription. ORFs are those portions of the DNA sequence that are expressed, and as we now know, that often means expressed in more than a single, simple, unified, linear way. ORFs also require extensive annotation - the kind of ancillary reading and writing notes, like the marginal illuminations in a medieval manuscipt, that provide sense, order, and new interpretive openings to the main text.

I'm interested in similar effects in the domain of genomics and the media: how narratives and concepts about genes, genomes, genome projects, and genomic companies are necessarily coded and framed - they couldn't work otherwise - but those frames don't halt further writing and reading. Reading keeps on going, and what's inside the media reading frames gets shaped by the annotations on the edges and even by what's outside. I'm interested in the margins of stories, and in biological, social, and economic phenomena that get pushed to the edge of visibility.

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