Gilbert’s brilliant piece of theatre

From Little Genetics to Big Genomics
In 1992, at the start of the surprisingly short decade-long march towards the sequencing of the human genome, one of its key initiators, geneticist Walter Gilbert, pulled a glittering CD out of his pocket and held it up to his audience announcing: “soon I will be able to say “here is a human being; it’s me”.’

Gilbert’s brilliant piece of theatre was echoed by other leading molecular biologists in their campaign to win public support and enthusiasm for the Human Genome Project (HGP), the ambitious international effort to sequence the three billion nucleotides that constitute the human genome, at a cost then estimated at $3 billion – a dollar a nucleotide.

It seemed not to matter how often molecular biologists employed the same theatrical device, whether in California or at London”s Institute for Contemporary Arts; holding up a CD to their spellbound audiences and saying this is human life itself was a brilliantly chosen trope. The CD, so familiar to the audience of a 1990s high-tech society, was recruited to symbolise the merger of molecularisation and digitalisation of biomedical research heralded by the HGP. Human genomics simultaneously offered a new definition of human nature, and new Promethean powers to repair and even re-engineer that nature.

An extract from "Genes, Cells and Brains" by Hilary & Steven Rose.

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