Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 51, Issue 4, pp 657–691 | Cite as

Globalizing Genomics: The Origins of the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration

  • Hallam StevensEmail author
Open Access
Original Research


Genomics is increasingly considered a global enterprise – the fact that biological information can flow rapidly around the planet is taken to be important to what genomics is and what it can achieve. However, the large-scale international circulation of nucleotide sequence information did not begin with the Human Genome Project. Efforts to formalize and institutionalize the circulation of sequence information emerged concurrently with the development of centralized facilities for collecting that information. That is, the very first databases build for collecting and sharing DNA sequence information were, from their outset, international collaborative enterprises. This paper describes the origins of the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration between GenBank in the United States, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory Databank, and the DNA Database of Japan. The technical and social groundwork for the international exchange of nucleotide sequences created the conditions of possibility for imagining nucleotide sequences (and subsequently genomes) as a “global” objects. The “transnationalism” of nucleotide sequence was critical to their ontology – what DNA sequences came to be during the Human Genome Project was deeply influenced by international exchange.


Genomics Databases Transnational history GenBank EMBL-Bank DNA Database of Japan 


  1. Ankeny, R. A., Maxson Jones, K. and Cook-Deegan, R. this volume. “The Bermuda Triangle: the politics, principles, and pragmatics of data sharing in the history of the Human Genome Project, 1963–2003.” Journal of the History of Biology.Google Scholar
  2. Bowker, Geoffrey. 2005. Memory Practices in the Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Star, Susan L. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  4. Chow-White, Peter A. and García-Sancho, Miguel. 2011. “Bidirectional Shaping and Spaces of Convergence: Interactions Between Biology and Computing from the First DNA Sequencers to Global Genome Databases.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 37(1): 124–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cook-Deegan, Robert. 1996. The Gene Wars: Science, Politics, and the Human Genome. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  6. Davies, G., Frow, E. and Leonelli, S. 2013. “Bigger, Faster, Better? Rhetorics and Practice of Large-Scale Research in Contemporary Bioscience.” Biosocieties 8(4): 386–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Farquhar, Judith and Rajan, Kaushik S., eds. 2014. “Knowledge/Value: Information, Archives, Databases [special issue].” East Asian Science, Technology, and Society: An International Journal 8(4): 383–478.Google Scholar
  8. García-Sancho, Miguel. 2012. Biology, Computing, and the History of Molecular Sequencing: From Proteins to DNA, 1945–2000. London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Haigh, Thomas. 2004. “‘A Veritable Bucket of Facts’: Origins of the Data Base Management System.” M. E. Bowden and B. Rayward (eds.), Proceedings of the 2nd Conference of the History and Heritage of Scientific Information Systems. Medford, NJ: Information Today Press, pp. 73–78.Google Scholar
  10. Hilgartner, Stephen. 1995. “Biomolecular Databases: New Communications Regimes for Biology?’ Science Communication 17(2): 240–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hilgartner, Stephen. 2004. “Making Maps and Making Social Order: Governing American Genome Centers, 1988–1993.” J.-P. Gaudillière and H.-J. Rheinberger (eds.), From Molecular Genetics to Genomics: The Mapping Cultures of Twentieth-Century Genetics. New York: Routledge, pp. 113–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hilgartner, Stephen. 2013. “Constituting Large-Scale Biology: Building a Regime of Governance in the Early Years of the Human Genome Project.” Biosocieties 8(4): 397–416.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hine, Christine. 2006. “Databases as Scientific Instruments and Their Role in the Ordering of Scientific Work.” Social Studies of Science 36(2): 269–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Howlett, Peter and Morgan, Mary S. 2011. How Well Do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Kanehisa, Minoru. 1983. “DNA Databases and Computer Analysis.” Cellular Engineering 2(13): 1520–1532 [translated from Japanese].Google Scholar
  16. Kanehisa, Minoru and Oi, Tatsuo. 1984. “DNA Databank.” Biophysics 24(1): 51–54 [translated from Japanese].Google Scholar
  17. Kishi, Nobuhito. 2004. Genomu haiboku [A Defeat in the Genome Project]. Diamond.Google Scholar
  18. Kuhara, Satoru and Hayashi, Katsuya. 1984. “Q&A: Genetic Database System.” Cellular Engineering 3(2): 170–179 [translated from Japanese].Google Scholar
  19. Leonelli, Sabina. 2009. “Centralising Labels to Distribute Data: The Regulatory Role of Genomic Consortia.” P. Atkinson, P. Glasner and M. Lock (eds.), The Handbook for Genetics and Society: Mapping the New Genomic Era. London: Routledge, pp. 469–485.Google Scholar
  20. Leonelli, Sabina. 2010. “Packaging Small Facts for Re-use: Databases in Model Organism Biology.” P. Howlett and M. S. Morgan (eds.), How Well Do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 325–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Mackenzie, Adrian, et al. 2015. “Post-archival Genomics and the Bulk Logistics of DNA Sequences.” Biosocieties 11(1): 82–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. McCray, W. Patrick. 2014. “How Astronomers Digitized the Sky.” Technology and Culture 55(4): 908–944.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. McElheny, Victor. 2012. Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  24. National Center for Human Genome Research. 1989. Human Genome Program Center Grants (P30). NIH Guide for Grant and Contracts 18, no. 25 (21 July). Accessed 10 July 2017.
  25. National Human Genome Research Institute. 2000. Press Release, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 26 June. Accessed 26 July 2016.
  26. Obayashi, M. 1986. “Origins of Molecular Biology in Japan.” Journal of the University of Occupational and Environmental Health 8(2): 251–256.Google Scholar
  27. Smith, Brian Cantwell. 1998. On the Origin of Objects. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  28. Smith, L. M., Sanders, J. Z., et al. 1986. “Fluorescence Detection in Automated DNA Sequence Analysis.” Nature 321: 674–679.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Soll, D., Kirschstein, R. L., Philipson, L. and Uchida, H. 1988. “DNA Databases Monitored.” Science 240(4851): 375.Google Scholar
  30. Stevens, Hallam. 2011. “Coding Sequences: A History of Sequence Comparison Algorithms.” Perspectives on Science 19(3): 263–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Stevens, Hallam. 2013. Life Out of Sequence: A Data-Driven History of Bioinformatics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Strasser, Bruno. 2011. “An Experimenter’s Museum: GenBank, Natural History, and the Moral Economies of Biomedicine.” Isis 102(1): 60–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Sugawara, H., et al. 1999. “DNA Data Bank of Japan Dealing with Large-Scale Data Submission.” Nucleic Acids Research 27(1): 25–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sulston, John and Ferry, Georgina. 2002. The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics, and the Human Genome. London: Joseph Henry Press.Google Scholar
  35. Tateno, Y., et al. 1998. “DNA Data Bank of Japan at Work on Genome Sequence Data.” Nucleic Acids Research 26(1): 16–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Tateno, Y., et al. 2000. “DNA Data Bank of Japan (DDBJ) in Collaboration with Mass Sequencing Teams.” Nucleic Acids Research 28(1): 24–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Thacker, Eugene. 2006. Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  38. Turchetti, Simone, Herran, Nestor and Boudia, Soraya. 2012. “Introduction: Have We Ever Been ‘Transnational’? Towards a History of Science Across and Beyond Borders.” British Journal for the History of Science 45(3): 319–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Uchida, Hisao. 1993. “Building a Science in Japan. The Formative Decades of Molecular Biology.” Journal of the History of Biology 26(3): 499–517.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Walgate, Robert. 1982. “Europe Leads on Sequences.” Nature 296: 596.Google Scholar
  41. Wang, Zouyue. 2010. “Transnational Science During the Cold War: The Case of Chinese/American Scientists.” Isis 101(2): 367–377.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017
corrected publication 2019

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Humanities and Social SciencesNanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore

Personalised recommendations