Hallam Stevens’ Life Out of Sequence by Mads Solberg

Life Out of Sequence: A Data-driven History of Bioinformatics

by Hallam Stevens

The University of Chicago Press, 2013. 294 pages.


Life Out of Sequence is a lucid ethnographic and historical account of how computational tools changed how biologists think about and engage with living systems. In it, Hallam Stevens tells a captivating story about how genes and genomes become meaningful through the emerging field of bioinformatics. It takes the reader through a series of “data-driven” studies of key actors and locations of a new material culture where data is at the centre. Unsatisfied with simple proclamations about the digitizations of life, Stevens carefully describes how the virtualization of nucleic acids has changed epistemic practices in biology.


Chapter 1 starts with the development of digital computers originally envisioned for military applications, which later came to be trusted for bio-scientific information management and analysis. In a recent interview Stevens observes that this historical backdrop complements Joseph November’s postwar account (Biomedical Computing, 2012) by continuing the story from the 1960s until the present day. Stevens argues that while initial attempts at computerizing biology failed (because they tried to shape computers to solve biological problems), biologists eventually came to pursue the kind of questions that computers were particularly good at solving. Through narrations of bioinformatic pioneers such as Margaret Dayhoff (a physical chemist and the ‘mother’ of bioinformatics), Walter Goad (a postwar physicist who introduced computing into biology and helped found GenBank), and James Ostell (an early innovator of nucleic acid analysis software), we learn how these tools gradually become trusted, and eventually ubiquitous, in current biology.

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