Stefan Helmreich, Department of Anthropology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Abstract: This paper examines how a new generation
Stefan Helmreich, Department of Anthropology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Abstract: This paper examines how a new generation of marine biologists is coming to see the sea as animated and maintained by its smallest inhabitants: marine microbes. Many such microbes thrive in the extreme environments of deep-sea volcanoes, methane-rich coastal areas, and the open ocean. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork among marine biologists at sea and in laboratories in the United States, I offer an anthropological account of how scientists render extremophilic organisms meaningful — as vestiges of early earthly life, barometers of climate change, and potentially profitable raw materials for biotechnology. The task scientists set for themselves, I argue, is one of making biological life formssignificant for our social, cultural and ethicalforms of life. Some participants in this new research — including Craig Venter, who has modeled his “Ocean Microbial Genome Survey” on the voyage of the Beagle — are beginning to speak of Earth’s “ocean genome,” a phrasing that defines life as a property that scales from gene to globe. I examine what this claim means for what we think of as a “genome” at all.
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