On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 16 — William Gibson and the Human Genome Project

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding… —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

Neuromancer is William S. Burroughs meets Blade Runner, a noir thriller where a found family of high tech low-lifes navigate a job full of twists, turns, and double-crosses, through the real to the unreal and back again. Its vision of cyberspace as a neon-drenched nightmare city in a world of crime syndicates and multinational corporations inspired the makers of the internet. Burroughs understood that in a world where information is power and national boundaries are meaningless, everyone is empowered and everyone is helpless, and created a mirror of the dystopian anxieties of the 1980s. It is the book that gave the brief but revolutionary subgenre of cyberpunk its legs.

’80s SF was a largely dull affair. The cultural double punch of Reagan and Thatcher and the rise of Star Wars mania led to a explosion of franchise novelizations and conservative Space Opera which hearkened back to the genre’s Golden Age roots. This passé insistence on optimism stood in stark contrast to the realities of a massive recession, Chernobyl, the AIDS epidemic, and the Iran-Contra affair, and created a blind spot at a time when that Golden Age vision of the future was finally meeting the present. It was the era of the personal computer, the Walkman, video games, and the most disruptive technology since the automobile: the internet. A few prescient writers recognized the internet’s informational potential, but it was William Gibson, a Beat poetry-loving erstwhile hippie with a knack for Gestalt thinking to wake science fiction up to the fact that the future was now with a swift kick in the teeth.

The information revolution would also lead biology through the last few steps into its own Golden Age future. Biology was necessarily a reactionary science, taking decades to trace a disease to a genetic starting point, and decades more to understand the non-disease state of that gene, and biology still lacked much of this basic information. Finding and mapping genes was a painfully slow process, so only diseases with single-gene causes were accessible. What was needed was an atlas of every human gene, and the ’80s proved the perfect Petri dish for its creation. The publication of Crime and Human Nature: The Definitive Study of the Roots of Crime (1985), which argued incorrectly for a genetic basis of mental illness and criminal behavior, struck a public nerve. With increased urbanization and a rise in violent crime, the prospect of a genetic test for criminality caught the public imagination. Additionally, public anxiety over cancer thanks to the War on Cancer begun under the Nixon administration, the birth of biotechnology, and advances in computer science created the ideal conditions for the origins of the Human Genome Project.


William Ford Gibson was born March 17, 1948 in South Carolina. His father’s construction management job had the family moving often until his father’s sudden death when Gibson was eight, when his mother moved them to rural Wytheville, Virginia in Appalachia. Gibson felt exiled from modernity, hating Wytheville’s monoculture, but science fiction brought him back to the present. “It was like discovering an abundant, perpetually replenished and freely available source of mental oxygen,” Gibson said. “You saw things differently, in extraordinary company.” He read moldering Galaxy issues, watched television serials, and read SF criticism alongside Lovecraft, Bester, Heinlein, and Sturgeon. He dreamt of being a writer, made fanzines, and was active in fandom, but in 1962, he discovered Burroughs and the Beats, and became skeptical of the optimism of Golden Age SF. Gibson’s poor school performance resulted in a stint in boarding school in Arizona, where he got into girls and marijuana, but when his mother suddenly died in 1966, he returned to Wytheville and began losing his mind. When the local draft board called him in, he told them he planned to sample every mind-altering substance in existence, then promptly moved to Toronto to avoid both the draft and his grief. After the Summer of Love, he traveled around, attending Woodstock and the Vietnam War protests in D.C. but when he met Deborah Thompson, he fell in love and they spent a year traveling in Europe before settling in Vancouver, where they were married and have lived ever since.

While the turbulence of Gibson’s early years formed his unique perspective on the world, the monomaniacal interest in the structure of biological molecules is what informed Frederick Sanger’s particular vision. Sanger was a brilliant biochemist at Cambridge who loved nothing better than immersing himself in conquering technical problems. Sanger’s first major breakthrough was developing a fingerprinting method to sequence proteins, earning him the 1958 Nobel Prize. When he moved to Crick and Brenner’s lab in the ’60s, he caught DNA fever. Early nucleic acid sequencing efforts involving double-stranded DNA using similar disintegration methods gave muddled results. Instead, a synthetic approach was needed, and in 1968, Sanger used DNA polymerase and a spike-in set of special, radio-labeled nucleotides which terminate duplication after it was incorporated. These terminator nucleotides incorporated randomly, so if you had enough copies of a piece of DNA you would get terminated chains of every length of the template, from 1bp to its final bp. If you then separate the fragments with gel electrophoresis, you can read the DNA sequence base-by-base. The Sanger sequencing method was published in 1975, and in 1977, Sanger published the 5,000 bp genome of the bacteriophage PhiX, the first to be sequenced, winning him a second Nobel Prize in 1980.

Back in Canada, Gibson and Deborah had their first child in 1977, and their second in 1983, supporting their family on Deborah’s teaching income while Gibson received financial aid while pursuing degrees in English. Meanwhile, he’d reconnected with SF fandom, writing reviews and articles for fanzines, exploring the punk scene, and crafting stories with resilient nomadic loners loose and  technological extrapolations. A spate of these stories were published in the early ’80s, including “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981), which expressed his discontent with the Golden Age’s vision of the future. His early stories earned him notice and award nominations, as well as the attention of Ace editor Terry Carr, who saw something in Gibson’s postmodern vision of a future made post-geographic by information and the rise of multinational corporations. Carr offered him a book deal, and Gibson, who didn’t feel ready to write a book, spent a year writing Neuromancer in a “blind animal terror.” Word of mouth made it into the most talked-about SF book of 1984, and Gibson would win the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. Its two sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, expanded the world with old and new characters as AIs evolve into gods into cyberspace. The cyberpunk movement had been born, and while it would largely burn out under the weight of countless imitators and its cooption by advertisers, Gibson had successfully brought SF’s perspective back down to earth.

1984 also saw the start of the conversation that would lead to the human genome. The Department of Energy wanted to study genetic damage from fallout in Japanese children, but Sanger’s method, while accurate, was cumbersome. Thankfully, biology wasn’t immune to the 1980s’ technological revolution; fluorescent nucleotides replaced the radioactive one, and the large gels were replaced with gel-filled capillaries that fed the fragments, smallest to largest, through a detector, thus automating DNA sequencing in 1986. That same year, Watson—who wanted to better understand if there was a genetic component to his son’s schizophrenia—convened “The Molecular Biology of Homo Sapiens” meeting at Cold Spring Harbor, where Kary Mullis presented PCR amid discussions of whether the human genome was within reach. There, Wally Gilbert, another DNA sequencing pioneer (and 1980 Nobel Prize winner) gave a largely accurate estimate that the 3 billion bp genome would require 50k person years and $3 billion dollars to complete. The NIH and DOE launched the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium in 1989, with Watson at its head. The IHGSC transcended national boundaries, with scientists from the U.S., France, Germany, Britain, China and Japan working together and sharing data. “We are initiating an unending study of human biology,” molecular biologist Norton Zinder said at their first meeting. “Whatever it’s going to be, it will be an adventure, a priceless endeavor. And when it’s done, someone else will sit down and say, ‘It’s time to begin.’”

Following Neuromancer’s success, Gibson began to move away from cyberpunk, while continuously  working to master his own writing and style. He considered himself an amateur anthropologist with a fascination with cities, culture, and the general gestalt of the time. He therefore agreed to collaborate on a novel with the writer and editor of the influential cyberpunk Mirrorshades (1986) anthology, Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine (1990) takes place in an alternate Victorian England which is not equipped to deal with the consequences of Charles Babbage’s computer prototype working, with often subtly hilarious consequences. It blended cyberpunk with alternate history and the fringe steam-powered Victorian subgenre which would come to be known as steampunk—and indeed, The Difference Engine would come to be seen as one of the most popular works in the steampunk canon. Gibson also wrote screenplays based on his short fiction, collected in Burning Chrome (1982). Johnny Mnemonic (1995) would be the only one of these made, veering far from his original script. Gibson also produced a few television scripts for The X-Files, a show his daughter was fond of, including “Kill Switch,” a 1998 episode which is as close as we’ve come to a Neuromancer adaptation.

To begin mapping the human genome, the IHGSC had to first master these new sequencing techniques. They opted for a clone-by-clone approach first using the smaller C. elegans genome. Their method would use a linkage-based physical genome map to arrange genome fragment clones in order, confirm both identify and overlap of those clones, then start sequencing from the start of chromosome one. However, Craig Venter, an obsessive and rather belligerent NIH researcher, considered the approach needlessly slow. He proposed the faster and cheaper “shotgun” sequencing method, where you fragment larger genome pieces, sequence them, then bioinformatically reassemble the fragments into the genome using their overlapping sequences. Watson deemed the approach sloppy, since it might leave large gaps, but Venter went ahead on his own, intending to patent any genes he found, further angering the IHGSC. The human genome project was for the good of mankind, not for profit. Venter eventually tired of the bickering and left to found The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), where he used the shotgun method to sequenced the genome of the first living creature (the bacteria that causes lethal pneumonia) in 1995. Sanger congratulated him on his “magnificent” work. The development of novel algorithms and memory-intensive cluster computing infrastructure to align and assemble the the vast amount of data being produced, and internet databases, like GenBank, became an essential conduit for sharing data internationally, and the future becoming the present became a critical piece of the Human Genome Project’s success.

Gibson too began to focus more on the consequences of near-present technology, but still through the interconnected stories of misfit outsiders, artificial intelligences, and underworld economics, now with tabloid celebrity culture, nanotechnology, 3D printing, bike messenger culture, real estate speculation, virtual fandoms, and mischievous hackers in dark web cities entering into the mix. The Bridge trilogy—Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)—is a time capsule of the ’90s, introducing a new Gibsonian trope that features characters with advanced subconscious pattern recognition skills, becoming all-seeing panopticons who make sense of the flood of information of the modern age.

In 1998, Venter left TIGR to start a new company, Celera, buying 200 of the latest DNA sequencers, and vowing to finish the human genome in three years and patent any drug discovery targets he found, further stoking the feud. That same year, IHGSC announced the completion of the C. elegans genome, the first multicellular organism genome, as they hit the 25% completion mark on the human genome. Nine months later, Venter announced the sequence of the Drosophila genome, completed in a record eleven months. The escalating tensions caused President Clinton to step in and force them to agree to co-announce and publish the human genome, which they did in 2000. In the end, Venter did bow to public pressure to make his data publicly available, and the final sequence was published in 2003, thus ushering in the present age of genomics.

Gibson completed his own shift to the present with his technothriller Blue Ant trilogy, a poetic secret history with guerrilla art and surveillance states in a post 9/11 world. Gibson said, “I found the material of the actual 21st century richer, stranger, more multiplex than any imaginary 21st century could ever have been. And it could be unpacked with the toolkit of science fiction.” Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) follow an interconnected group of globetrotting rock stars, cool hunters, drug addicts, fashion designers, and ex-spies as their lives are changed by a eccentric billionaire with an insatiable curiosity and the knack for finding the right people for the right job. In this trilogy, Gibson deftly captures the feeling, familiar to many in  the aughts, that no one was driving the car…that we are all barreling together blindly into an unknowable future.

The completion of the human genome showed us we are more biologically related to not only one another, but to the rest of the world, than had been anticipated. It married computer science indelibly to biology to create the field of bioinformatics, while further advances in sequencing technology taken the human genome down from 3 billion dollars in 13 years to $1000 in forty-eight hours. Sequencing has become so pervasive that consumer sequencing markets, like AncestryDNA and 23andMe have become popular. Sequencing is now routinely used for pre-natal genetic testing, for plant breeding, to determine the best treatment for a specific cancer’s mutations, to diagnose and treat previously unknowable rare genetic diseases, and diagnose and track disease outbreaks, among many other applications. Sequencing has made its science fictional future into its present, but the more questions we answer, the more questions arise, and we still have a long way to go to fully understanding our genome.

Gibson’s uncanny ability to capture the feel of contemporary life continues to inform his work. The Peripheral (2014) represented a return to his science-fictional roots, and is a zeitgeist-savvy, time-bending techno-noir thriller which he rewrote the end of to reflect the outcome of the 2016 election. Archangel (2016) is an alternate history time travel graphic novel, and Agency, a follow-up to The Peripheral, is newly out this week. Gibson was named a SFWA Grandmaster in 2019, and while the ascendancy of the cyberpunk movement may have been brief, it gave science fiction a vital and unified vision as we ushered in a new century in which information can empower and disenfranchise anyone.

Up next, we’ll take a look at the ’80s new space opera trend through Iain M. Bank’s Culture novels, and see how these technological advances in biology turned dreams of genetic engineering into reality.

Kelly Lagor is a scientist by day and a science fiction writer by night. Her work has appeared at Tor.com and other places, and you can find her tweeting about all kinds of nonsense @klagor


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