Inside the sequence universe: the amazing life of data and the people who look after them

Nadim, Tahani. 2012. Inside the sequence universe: the amazing life of data and the people who look after them. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]


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Abstract or Description

This thesis provides an ethnographic exploration of two large nucleotide sequence databases, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory Bank, UK and GenBank, US. It describes and analyses their complex bioinformatic environments as well as their material-discursive environments – the objects, narratives and practices that recursively constitute these databases. In doing so, it unravels a rich bioinformational ecology – the “sequence universe”. Here, mosquitoes have mumps, the louse is “huge” and self-styled information plumbers patch-up high-throughput data pipelines while data curators battle the indiscriminate coming-to-life caused by metagenomics.

Given the intensification of data production, the biosciences have reached a point where concerns have squarely turned to fundamental questions about how to know within and between all that data. This thesis assembles a database imaginary, recovering inventive terms of scholarly engagement with bioinformational databases and data, terms that remain critical without necessarily reverting to a database logic. Science studies and related disciplines, investigating illustrious projects like the UK Biobank, have developed a sustained critique of the perceived conflation of bodies and data. This thesis argues that these accounts forego an engagement with the database sui generis, as a situated arrangement of people, things, routines and spaces. It shows that databases have histories and continue established practices of collecting and curating. At the same time, it maps entanglements of the databases with experiments and discovery thereby demonstrates the vibrancy of data. Focusing on the question of what happens at these databases, the thesis follows data curators and programmers but also database records and the entities documented by them, such as uncultured bacteria. It contextualises ethnographic findings within the literature on the sociology and philosophy of science and technology while also making references to works of art and literature in order to bring into relief the boundary-defying scope of the issues raised.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)


Science studies, database, biosciences, sequence data, GenBank, archive, laboratory, inventive problem-making, metagenomics, posthuman

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Sociology > Centre for Study of Invention and Social Process (CSISP) [2003-2015]


23 February 2012

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

26 Apr 2013 14:48

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 15:50


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