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by Caitlin Burke

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Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology is an ethnographic study of the development of polymerase chain reaction, published by scientists at Cetus Corporation in 1985. PCR, a laboratory technique used to produce huge numbers of copies of selected pieces of genetic material, has proved a boon to scientists, who need substantial quantities of such material for meaningful analysis. PCR "decontextualizes" genetic material -- taking it out of the living systems that had made it difficult to isolate in large quantities. Although this book traces the science of PCR from concept to initial implementation and validation, its primary goal is to examine the environment in which it arose. Paul Rabinow offers a thoughtful and highly readable book about a dramatic technological achievement brought forth by truly interesting people.

Rabinow combines scene-setting with interviews and discussion to describe both the environment in which PCR was developed and the reasons that investigating this are interesting. There are a number of aspects of the "story" of PCR that make it especially worth telling: serious, collaborative scientists Henry Erlich and David Gelfand, working alongside spirited, occasional genius Kary Mullis in a group led -- and held together -- by gifted mediator Tom White. When Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize for his idea of PCR, Cetus proved itself a worthy testing ground for the hypothesis that private industry was somehow unable to produce useful or interesting research. Rabinow interviews Cetus scientists about their decisions to go to Cetus rather than remain or seek jobs in the academy, and their responses make up some of the best reading in this book.

Making PCR is a story of biotechnology, but it also touches on science in general. It discusses ideas about science in particular -- ideas such as "academic science is essentially cooperative" or "industry science is profit driven and therefore second rate." Making PCR pits myths about the academy and industry against reality as perceived by people who made the choice in favor of industry -- typically under fire from colleagues -- and in the case of PCR, industry wins very big indeed. From David Gelfand's rejection of the academy as a place whose "acculturative process is ... keyed to individual, personal achievement" to Henry Erlich's satisfaction with his job at Cetus because the company really did let him devote substantial time to his non-business scientific pursuits, Cetus emerges, in Rabinow's words, as a "fortuitous space of experimentation."

There is a central irony in Making PCR: While the actual implementation of a useful form of PCR was accomplished by exactly the kind of collaborative science that is most highly valued by nearly all the voices represented in this book, the "story" of PCR has often been told in terms of lone genius. The lone genius representation has the weight of familiarity and the issue of the Nobel Prize to support it, and, of course, Kary Mullis gives interviews in the lay press, which the scientists still at Cetus and, later, Roche typically did not do. It's a story that ultimately underlines the reality of corporate science as perceived both by Cetus scientists and by their critical colleagues in the academy -- Cetus took a conservative line in order to protect its patent; it was a profit-driven strategy that de-emphasized individual, personal achievement (of the individuals who remained at Cetus after Mullis left).

Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology is a very specific tale. Rabinow does not generalize about the academy or biotechnology. He stays very carefully within the confines of the title of his book. He tells about PCR, and he locates that telling in the context of biotechnology; as they are introduced, the other participants in the telling locate themselves within the world of science, at defined points in its history. In Rabinow's elegant and appealing narrative, PCR takes DNA out of context, thereby creating tremendous opportunities both for achievement and for thinking within -- and about -- the context in which it emerged.

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