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Although the double helix structure of DNA was discovered in 1953 by James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin, it was not until the 1980s that powerful sequencing and information technologies were developed that enabled scientists to identify particular genes associated with hereditary diseases and to begin to map all of the genes in human DNA: the so-called human genome. The human genome project was a massive international mapping exercise which began in the 1990s and culminated in the publication of a draft sequence by the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium of the entire human genome in 2001, which is freely available on the Internet.
In the same period a broader range of biomedical knowledge was also developing, particularly in the fields of assisted conception. More recently, research into stem cells and tissue engineering, alongside the so-called postgenomic sciences” of pharmacogenomics and proteomics, has also developed. This science of life” involves detailed understanding of the basic cellular mechanisms involved in human development, as well as a focus upon copying and ultimately manipulating these processes in the laboratory. This is linked to a number of biomedical developments in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, particularly the move towards more targeted individualized treatments tailored to individuals’ particular genetic makeup, and perhaps, in the future, utilizing cells and tissues taken from people’s own bodies to develop treatments for them.
Sociological work on these developments covers a wide remit. The early days of the human genome project saw sociologists, in common with their colleagues in the ethical and legal disciplines, exploring the implications of greater knowledge about individuals’ genetic makeup, particularly the dangers of eugenics and genetic determinism. Others focused upon the political economy of the project, especially patenting (notably, indigenous people’s DNA) and access to genetic information by the state (primarily with respect to large-scale genetic databases). As Waldby (2002) noted, this was part of a growing trend of biovalue” in which bodily parts and processes were commodified.
- Kerr, A. & Shakespeare, T. (2002) Genetic Politics: From Eugenics to Genome. New Clarion Press, Cheltenham.
- Waldby, C. (2002) Stem cells, tissue culture and the production of biovalue. Health 6: 301—23.
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