John Paul (UK) - Whole genome sequencing: a bacteriological enquiry into the sublime and the beautiful

Prague - December 6, 2012

John Paul presents his paper within the panel Confronting the Bacterial Sublime: Whole Genome Sequencing, Microbiology and Bioart at International conference MutaMorphosis in Prague, Czech Republic.

Edmund Burke associated the sublime with immensity, with perception of danger and also with the microscopic and the infinitely small, whilst notions of beauty were to be found in things that were safe, smooth and small. Seen through the right kind of lens bacteria are things of beauty. They lend themselves to the sublime by virtue of their absolute numbers, their diversity and their history that stretches back through geological time. Some are deadly pathogens.

It is becoming increasingly practical and affordable to determine the genetic code of bacteria, although the technical and data management issues that relate to the millions of chemical bases that compose a single genome are daunting. The idea itself almost feels dangerous. Modernising Medical Microbiology is a research programme that is creating a framework to translate whole genome sequencing from the research arena into the world of routine tests. By sequencing whole genomes it becomes possible to determine characteristics and compare the relatedness of bacteria at the highest possible resolution. For example, sequence data from clinical specimens can be used to link infections in different people without the need to link cases by using contact tracing information.

It would be of interest to the public to acquaint themselves with the implications of whole genome sequencing to the future of science and medicine. Contemporary art offers a medium through which some of the messages from genome sequencing research may be communicated to a wider audience.

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