On junk…DNA

Sobre DNA…lixo.
Este ensaio examina a subjetividade individual e coletiva na intersecção da (bio)política, da genética, da economia e da imaginação pop-cultural ao seguir a cadeia do 'junk DNA' como metonímia para o excesso e a utilidade. Ao traçar um cenário de ficção-científica envolvendo o uso de armas bio-genéticas e ao mapear os genomas 'humano' e 'étnico', podemos ver como as preocupações acerca do excesso, em forma de 'junk DNA' e genomas 'étnicos' traduzem-se nas esferas sócio-política e econômica e como está reconfigurado como indivíduos e populações prescindíveis. Consegue-se isso principalmente através de uma leitura comparativa de um romance de ficção-científica e um texto sobre estudos culturais, ambos estruturados em volta da genética. Concluo que a ansiedade produzida pelo 'junk DNA' na ciência genética causa impacto em como o indivíduo e a população são concebidos nos setores não científicos. Além disso, é nestes setores -- na política, na economia e na cultura pop -- onde se realiza a mediação do excesso de informação genética, o 'junk' (lixo), ao nível global.

“Fear and anxiety create the very effect of "that which I am not," through the very affect of turning away from an object, which nevertheless threatens as it passes by or is displaced. To this extent, fear does not involve the defense of borders that already exist; rather, fear makes those borders, by establishing objects from which the subject, in fearing, can stand apart, objects that become "the not" from which the subject appears to flee” (Ahmed 127–128).

Eugene Thacker's The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture provides a significant and useful model for examining how genetics, information technologies, (bio)politics and economics intersect, and where they collide with pop-cultural imagination to produce an (often less than overt) understanding of who we are (subjectivity), and how we differ from one another (ethnicity, race, etc.) in terms of excess. By reading it alongside a science fiction novel dealing with many of the same issues, bringing in Sara Ahmed's "Affective Economies," and using “junk DNA” as a point of entry to genetic-informational excess, we can trace how the anxiety over this excess (DNA, bodies of DNA) circulates, creating affective delineations of “self” and “other.” To this end, I will look at how the mapping of entire genomes has resulted in an excess of information—an excess of “insignificant” information—while the actual differences between individual genomes are less than expected; how mapping population genomes translates to an excess of information in relation to the “normal” DNA information of the collective “human” genome; and finally, how the anxiety over the excess of information translates to affective relationship of fear to these genetically “other” bodies, which highlights the excessive similarity between genomes by exaggerating the biologically deterministic view of (racial) difference.

Slatewiper, a pulp science fiction novel by Lewis Perdue, was written in 1993. Slatewiper begins with a terrifying unknown disease causing the painful deaths of Korean citizens of Tokyo, Japan. Once contracted it is lethal, but it doesn't appear to be a threat to Japanese doctors attempting to treat the dying, or the American military doctors who turn up to investigate. We then learn that the heroine of the story is the founder and CEO of a biotech company that has gained notoriety “by developing profitable disease treatments from "introns": parts of the human genome that others had dismissed as "junk DNA" (Perdue 10). The work being done here with “junk DNA” is linked to ethnic markers amidst the “junk” of the human genome, and has allowed for the development of treatments targeted to diseases that afflict particular ethnic groups. As intrigue unfolds and death closes in on all sides, we discover that the research done to target therapies to ethnically-based diseases is being used to trigger the bioweapon in selected populations.

The difference between the DNA of any two individuals is only 0.1 percent. Nonetheless, especially if we consider the sheer volume of genetic material in each human being, and that serious genetic disorders can be caused by a single molecular error, the emphasis on where we differ as individuals is significant (Jenkins 125–126). As the Dictionary of Genetics entry on “junk DNA” suggests, “junk” is differentiated from “garbage”—it implies a potential future usefulness rather than a worthless material that can be discarded. Yet even with the possibility of a use for all the “junk” waiting in the wings, the current situation is such that the mapping of the human genome has resulted in an excess of information, most of which geneticists don't know what to do with. Moreover, as Thacker points out, this excess of information seems to cause a great deal of anxiety in the scientific community as they attempt to indicate the significance of the Human Genome Project's (HGP) findings to the general public (92). For a field reliant on the idea that unlocking the code of DNA—that obtaining the meaning of genes—is essential to understanding how biological life works, the volume of such potentially purely excessive information is a definite blow.

Individual subjecthood has been configured many ways throughout history, and in numerous different fields of study—from philosophy to the arts, and yes, biotechnological and genetic sciences. As the musings of one of Slatewiper's protagonists suggest, one of the ongoing puzzles for genetic researchers, and points of great interest to the public, remains the question of how much one's DNA determines who one is. In general, and especially as it has translated via the media to the popular sphere (one such translation is our science fiction text Slatewiper), the discourse of genetics implies a varying but significantly deterministic role for DNA in the processes of life (Thacker 76). If our individuality can be construed at the level of such a small but significant percentage of our genetic makeup, might there actually be important differences between the genomes of distinct, “ethnic” populations?[1]

Now widely discredited by the scientific community, “junk DNA” is a term that has for better or worse entered the popular vernacular as well as the pop-cultural imagination. It refers to the large portions of DNA that have no known function in life processes ("junk DNA," A Dictionary of Genetics). As Thacker points out, the HGP's goal of mapping the human genome uncovered that only three percent of the human genome is currently considered functioning DNA: genes that code for proteins needed to create and sustain life (119). Even without all the media hype surrounding the project and its completion this would have been a disappointing discovery for those in genomics research and industry, having invested huge amounts of time and resources into mapping the human genome (presumably in the interest of profitable returns). Biologically, life processes involving DNA seem to have developed their own way of managing the excess of the “junk DNA.”[2] During the copying of genetic information from DNA to RNA, it is interesting to note that only the coding sections of the DNA make the “final cut” when it comes to participating in protein production (Thacker 119). Thus even at the molecular level some form of organizing principle is mediating the excess of genetic material, separating the “junk” from the essential information for the effective functioning of life.

(Micro)Managing the “Junk”

Genomics is the “technologically assisted study of the total DNA, or genome, of organisms” (Thacker 135). In other words, genomics is the field of genetics studied as information, processed by computers as datasets that make up databases. In this way, genome-mapping projects, such as described below, manage and interpret the voluminous quantities of information they uncover, both in terms of the excessive quantity in the form of “junk DNA” at the individual level, and the excess of information in the form of “distinct” population genomes. As the previously mentioned deterministic understanding of genetic code equals who we are as an individual, and if racial and ethnic difference is already inscribed in historically (pseudo)scientific terms, we need to view the hunt for evidence of such difference at the genetic level as somewhat predetermined. With the development of population genome databases, aimed at determining ethnic and racial differences in and between populations, the “urgency” of locating difference does not disappear; it is merely replaced by an “emphasis” on genotypic (gene sequences, information) rather than phenotypic (level of visible expression of genes) markers. Thus “race becomes not only biologically determined but informatically determined” (Thacker 144).

The HGP mapped the “definitive” human genome from the DNA of only 10 different people (Jenkins 125). In spite of the project's claim to be mapping a “human wide”[3] genome, the resultant map (and the process by which it was mapped) is predominately Western in scope (Jenkins 176). Thacker points out that such genome projects as that undertaken by the HGP, which “emphasize their universality,” also set up a ground against which all subsequent differences will be evaluated. They are thus essentially in “the processes of establishing a genetic norm, what will or will not exist within the domain of consideration for genetic medicine, and what will or will not be identified as anomalous, excessive, or central to genetic knowledge” (Thacker 158–159). In an effort to remedy the homogenization inherent in the HGP's “human” genome map, the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) was created in the early 1990s. Its purpose was to map the ethnically diverse genomes “from a range of "other" cultures.” By the late 1990s the HGDP was coming “under fire” for unethical collection of and capitalization on samples of DNA from indigenous cultures, in essence a form of “genetic colonialism” (Thacker 116–117). However, by setting up the “ethnic” gene maps in contradistinction to the more “universal” human genome projects, the HGDP merely propagated the discourses of otherness, where “genetic difference does not simply account for cultural-ethnic specificity; it demands it” (Thacker 117).

While the HGDP has subsequently faded from view, the project of mapping “ethnic” genomes continues to this day. Currently, the National Geographic Society, with funding from IBM and other private sector sources, is running a program called the Genography Project. While the National Geographic Society and its affiliates in the project emphasize the “ethical” nature of their research—samples taken on a volunteer-only basis, and the release of their findings to the public domain circumventing any accusations of profiteering (Genography Project)—the emphasis on ethnic and racial differences, circumscribed by geographic location, results in the same reductionism of genetic difference that plagued the HGDP. As Thacker points out, what such projects effectively do is highlight “the ways in which race, genomes, and economics are mediated in complex ways by information technologies. Such research programs, which highlight "genetic difference," demonstrate the extent to which culture and biology are often at odds with each other and the extent to which both ethnicity and race are compelled to accommodate the structures of informatics and information” (135).

Excessive Genomes in Global Biopolitics

It is useful here for our purposes to digress briefly into a discussion of Michel Foucault's notion of biopolitics, since it provides a helpful framework for bridging the gap between the individual genome and the population genome, and for understanding how utility and excess are configured at the level of the (global) population. Biopolitics can be defined as “Foucault's term for the attempts made by governments to rationalize the problems posed by the physical existence of a population, namely health, hygiene, birth-rates, longevity and race;” it is “as health comes to be defined in statistical terms” (Macey). Thus the biopolitical state effects a transfer from interest in the individuals that compose the population to interest in the population as a whole, by managing them as information sets that can be averaged. As such, the individual is accounted for and simultaneously subsumed in “the population.” The inverse of the biopolitical normalization of the population is the biopolitical marking of populations as “abnormal,” or “other”—both within and between “distinct” populations. As Thacker understands the genetic framing of race and ethnicity in terms of Foucault's biopolitics, it is at this level of “internal differentiation” that “biological notions of race (difference)” are folded “onto biological notions of population (sameness)”; Thacker quotes Foucault to point out that “biopolitics treats "the population as a mixture of races, or to be more accurate, to treat the species, to subdivide the species it controls, into the subspecies known, precisely, as races" (151–152).

If, as Thacker suggests, 'the ontological question "What is life?" is always folded into a set of political-economic questions, such as, "Can biology be turned into a technology?" or "Can life be property?"[4] (60), must we frame our discussion of genetic difference—at the levels of both the individual and the population—in terms of utility? Moreover, according to Sara Ahmed in her essay "Affective Economies," fear works as a process through which to “secure forms of the collective,” in the sense that “the individual subject comes into being through its very alignment with the collective. It is the very failure of affect to be located in a subject or object that allows it to generate the surfaces of collective bodies (128). If, as Ahmed interprets Heidegger, we can understand fear as relating to “that which is not yet in the present” (125), then we can understand how the anxiety over the excess of genetic information, connected to the drive for utility in genomic sciences, gets translated into a fear of non-utilitarian difference-as-excess and of those bodies that come to symbolize it (a form of genetic “racism” if you will). Foucault claims, quoted in Thacker, that "racism makes it possible to establish a relationship between my life and the death of the other that is not a military or warlike relationship of confrontation, but a biological relationship," where “Foucault is clearly thinking of the use of medicine in the service of racial purity and of ethnic-cleansing programs” (151–152).

Thus we return to the discussion of biopolitics, which implies a sort of ownership of the population by the state.[5] “Ownership” implies the ability to do with one's property what one will, including the possibility of disposing of it. The disposal of biopolitical property, in the form of human genomes, becomes particularly troublesome in terms of the emphasis on utility and excess. If genetic difference, especially that of genetic “ethnic” difference, is framed as being excessive or as “junk”, then we would read its utility as questionable at best. It is here that we encounter eugenics programs, in which the utility of such an excess of difference is posited in negative terms—as being detrimental to the non-excessive norm and thus in need of eradication.[6] As Ahmed would have us remember, the impetus to preserve (dominant) social structures is configured in terms of “fear of degeneration,” which “becomes associated more with some bodies than others” (135). “The threat of such others to social forms (which are the materialization of norms) is represented as the threat of turning away from the values that will guarantee survival” (Ahmed 135), in our case the norm of the “human” genome as opposed to those of “distinct” populations signifying (racial) difference. This move to considering the excessive, or “junk,” genomes and the bodies they represent as a threat is imperative if we are to understand how the biotechnology that creates this excess comes to be utilized not only for its management, but also deployed against it in its (possible) disposal.

Having moved from the microscopic visions of DNA molecules themselves, through the individual, to the level of the population, we turn now to issues of ethnic difference-as-excess to examine the global political and economic implications of so much “junk.” At the level of population genomes, the mapping of “distinct” ethnic genomes by the HGDP and the Genography Project, as discussed above, results in a slightly different form of excess than that of “junk DNA”—in this case signifying ethnic variations from the “human” genome map as excessive to the most relevant, average, information. If the anxiety over the excess of “junk” information in the “average” human genome is caused by a flailing sense of un-located utility, one can only imagine what sort of anxiety is produced by the accounting of excessive “ethnic” genetic difference. Is the stage then set for our return to the science fiction of bioweapons that can target the specific genomes of politically and economically determined excessive or “junk” bodies?

Rachael Weisman é aluna do Departamento de Performance Studies da New York University onde atualmente realiza seu Mestrado. Recebeu seu diploma (BA) em Arte/História da Arte -- com especialização em Artes do Teatro -- pela Kalamazoo College, em 2005.


[1] It is worth pointing out here that modern science has played a significant role in 'legitimizing [the] articulation of racial and ethnic difference,' inasmuch as, among other ways, '[n]ineteenth-century sciences such as phrenology, Darwinism, hereditary studies, and eugenics contributed to the social marginalization of certain human types, from the criminal to the pervert to the primitive' (Thacker 143).

[2] A process called transcription occurs all the time in our cells, in which sections of a chromosome unwind to be replicated into a single strand of RNA (the molecule that will carry the information to the ribosomes, where it will be 'translated'). This is the biological process of decoding the DNA to manage the production of amino acids and their formation into proteins that are vital to life (Jenkins 103-109).

[3] The term 'human' is a tricky one, as even a brief history of history will show there have been many societies for whom 'humanity' has been a right granted only a specific few.

[4] It should be noted that, in fact, life has historically been construed as property, in the form of slavery, etc.

[5] Thacker points out, by quoting Foucault on page 26, that '[i]f the sovereign was defined in part by the right to condemn to death, biopolitics is defined by the right to foster life: "One might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death."'

[6] I am referring here to such historically notable eugenics projects as Nazi Germany's Holocaust, and the U.S. eugenics program of the 1920s and 1930s 'aimed at eliminating the mentally retarded, epileptics and sexual deviants' (Jenkins 131). For further discussion of eugenics see Jenkins, pages 130-131.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. "Affective Economies." Social Text 79, 22.2, 2004. (accessed 19 February 2007).

Genography Project About Page. (accessed 4 February 2007).

King, Robert C., William D. Stansfield, and Pamela K. Mulligan, eds. 2007. A Dictionary of Genetics, s.v. “junk DNA.” London: Oxford University Press. Oxford Reference Online. (accessed 5 February 2007).

Macey, David. 2000. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. s.v. “biopolitics.” London: Penguin Books.

Thacker, Eugene. 2005. The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.