Genetic Origami in Asian Experiments

Aihwa Ong University of California, Berkeley
Abstract: How can the humanities and social sciences can be blended in a contemporary inquiry into the flow of bioscience to sites in Asia? The study of contemporary transformations, I suggest, may require shifting from a taproot to a rhizomatic angle of analysis (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). My approach looks at how the interaction of global forms, situated politics, and ethics crystallizes conditions for the configuration of modern knowledge in a specific context. Given the particular milieu of scientific experiments, the "Asia" referent is not a fixed entity but a shifting target of different inquiries and strategies. Postgenomic research increasingly relies on data science to analyze the DNA of patients in order to more precisely diagnose illnesses and thus customize medicine. In Asian sites, biomedical researchers assemble critical data points on DNA and disease that are organized according to ethnic-specified groups. Researchers use the "ethnic" heurisitic to organize databases that help predict susceptibility to fatal diseases; the sides effects of drugs; and develop novel treatments. Disparate science objects, brought into relationships of association, are thus foldable into larger databases, as in genome-wide association studies. In addition, the biomedical databasing of Asian populations, DNA, diseases, and therapeutic targets creates new regimes of value, from potential bio-profits to political support for biomedical science and the ethics of health care. Thus, genomic science creates the environment for the fungibility of life (as data points, diseases, ethnicities, etc.) by making disparate objects convertible across different domains of valuation. I discuss three projects (Biopolis' genetic database, the Pan-Asia DNA network, and BGI's minzu DNA study) that variously dis-embed and/or re-embed established meanings of ethnicity,"Chineseness," and Asia. I show that different modes of biomappings target different and overlapping spaces of problem-solving. In these ventures, Asia itself is a shape-shifting entity produced by bioscientific foldings that generate further uncertainties.

"The genome is more plastic than we thought."

–Stem cell expert at Biopolis research center, Singapore (Ong 2016, 136)

From anthropology to biology, there is a shift from ontological claims to a focus on how the situated interplay of things shapes the space of inquiry. From the interaction of molecular pathways to the confluence of social flows, researchers investigate how contexts are transformed through entanglements with external forces. Even the genome, once held to be rather stable, is now recognized “as more plastic than we thought.” Instead of imposing fixed categories on mutable biological and social forms, we hope to grasp what is emerging from their contextual interactions.

This attention to contingency, variability, and mutability is even more necessary if we are to understand how globalizing milieus are unfolding in Asia. Asian humanities, long dominated by history, language, and literature, has been late in considering heterogeneity, interconnectivity, dynamism, and uncertainty outside the historical or cultural paradigm. Asian Studies in general has operated within the vertical model while skeptical of latitudinal angles of analysis (hesitant steps have been taken in the so-called diasporic studies). It is indeed a challenge to shift from what Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus call the taproot to the rhizome models, or to figure out how components of the past, present, and future, the “inside” and the “outside,” the near and far, may be relevant to our study of contemporary realities in Asia.

Asian humanities, long dominated by history, language, and literature, has been late in considering heterogeneity, interconnectivity, dynamism, and uncertainty outside the historical or cultural paradigm.

Area Studies developed during World War II sought to sum up “Asian cultures,” led by anthropology (Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword). But since then, history, literature, and linguistics have played a leading role in shaping “Asian humanities.” Meanwhile, sociocultural anthropology has been vexed by questions of how we can be self-reflexive about the concepts we deploy in order to grasp fleeting, complex realities. We interrogate received categories of description and projection as contingent products of how we frame our modes of inquiry. Our approach to the global tends to circumvent given units of analysis (nation-state, economy, culture) in order to account for the diversity of meanings, decisions, and patterns emerging from particular entanglements of the global and the situated.

These questions underpin my new book, Fungible Life: Experiment in the Asian City of Life (Duke University Press, 2017). Here, I briefly discuss how humanities and social sciences can be blended in a contemporary inquiry into the flow of bioscience to sites in Asia and how particular concatenations of global forms and situated politics and ethics crystallize conditions for the production of modern Asian knowledge. At the same time, I illuminate how such assemblages of science practice and cultural ideas indicate that “Asia” is not a stable referent but a shifting target of different inquiries and strategies.

Assemblage and the Fold

An anthropological challenge is to consider heterogeneity of contexts that are differently enmeshed in global forces. For me, “globalization” is neither an ethos nor an intensification of flow and interconnectivity, although these are necessary outcomes of our shared condition. What makes us globally modern is the universalization of rational forms originating in Europe that have over time migrated and interacted with diverse political and cultural contexts. The juxtapositioning and correlating of global forms and situated elements shape a variety of emerging situations as well as contribute to their heterogeneity, interconnectivity, and uncertainty.

I use “global assemblage” as the conceptual lens of inquiry that also captures the historicity of a particular empirical assemblage. Contingency and reflexivity are built into this approach that takes into account both first- and second-order observations. Conceptually, assemblage defines a space of inquiry; that is, the analyst selects a cluster of concepts, issues, and problems to diagram a framework of research. Empirically, assemblage refers to a particular space of problematization by experts on the ground. Through their everyday decision-making, researchers align ideas and things from multiple sites in order to configure a topology of intervention. We analyze how a situated assemblage of technology, politics, and ethics engenders conditions of possibility for shaping contextual regimes of thinking, knowing, and doing.

Assemblage also directs us to examine practices that correlate variations in conditions of fluidity and uncertainty. Analytically, by “contemporary” I do not mean an epoch, but that our contemporary solutions to problems of human life and living (the subjects of anthropo-logy) are interpenetrated by elements of past-present-future. Any modern experiment seeks to design what Jane Guyer calls the “near future” or a horizon of calculability term. As we learned in the recent presidential election, designs on the near future have relied on risk calculation, scenario-making, and figuring out the known unknowns (rubrics in Fungible Life). Within their particular milieu, experts assemble a cluster of elements, delimit the space of inquiry, and deploy different styles of thinking and tools to shape a desired, possible future, but always in the midst of uncertainty. But knowledge systems advance only dealing with those enigmatic variations encountered in the world at large, or emerging from the vortex of the unknown.

I use “global assemblage” as the conceptual lens of inquiry that also captures the historicity of a particular empirical assemblage. Contingency and reflexivity are built into this approach that takes into account both first- and second-order observations.

My book is about the biomedical assemblage at Biopolis, Singapore, and later brings in BGI Genomics, China, for a contrastive look. In modern times, the most urgent and contentious juxtaposition and interconnectivity between “the West” and “Asia” has been the alignment of universalizing science and technology, on the one hand, and situated cultural legacies and logics, on the other. Here, I invoke the “fold” (a Deleuzian term) to illuminate everyday practices in shaping the interaction between the inside and the outside. Origami is a powerful practice of globalization and seems critical for our understanding of how cosmopolitan science has advanced through transformation in multiple sites.

Postgenomic research increasingly relies on data science to analyze the DNA of patients in order to more precisely diagnose illnesses and thus customize medicine. In Asian sites, biomedical researchers assemble critical data points on DNA and disease that are organized according to ethnic-specified groups. Researchers use the “ethnic” heurisitic to predict susceptibility to fatal diseases; the sides effects of drugs; and develop novel cancer treatments. Disparate science objects, brought into relationships of association, are thus foldable into larger databases, as in genome-wide association studies. In addition, the biomedical databasing of Asian populations, DNA, diseases, and therapeutic targets creates new regimes of value, from potential bio-profits, to political support for biomedical science and the ethics of health care. Thus, genomic science creates the environment for the fungibility of life (as data points, diseases, ethnicities, etc.) by making disparate objects convertible across different domains of valuation. Researchers in Singapore and China, however, deploy the ethnic heuristic differently in coding particularities of “Asian” markers. Despite their bases in the same Asian continent, Biopolis and BGI Genomics in their respective performance of institutional subjectivity and infrastructure of scientific self-mastery, chart alternative approaches to cosmopolitan science,

I focus on three projects (Biopolis’ genetic database, the Pan-Asia DNA network, and BGI’s minzu DNA study) that variously dis-embed and/or re-embed established meanings of ethnicity, "Chineseness," and Asia. I show that different modes of biomappings also target different and overlapping spaces of problem-solving. In these ventures, Asia itself is a shape-shifting entity produced by bioscientific foldings that, of course, generate further uncertainties.

Biopolis’ Manifold Ethnic Database

“Gather up as much information as you can: there are no a priori right and wrong answers… Digital computing has become the servant of nondigital, brain-based computer in the biological sciences. [The aim is to] come up with better information to sustain life.”

American scientist, Biopolis research center (Ong 2016, 37)

In postgenomic sciences (focused on genetics and epigenetic effects on health), the body is a manifold archive of the possible in medicine, and life itself is stretched out as raw digital data under the molecular gaze. As a consequence, scientists are in a global race to "gather up as much information as you can; there are no a priori right and wrong answers." (Ong 2016, 37). Researchers are expanding their information mining beyond Western contexts, in order to accumulate novel data points on the world’s populations. Genetic variations in life forms (human and nonhuman) are not perceived through a moral lens of good or bad, but as foldable data points that may yield novel secrets of disease susceptibility and clues for customized therapies. The alignment of information bits regarding “race,” mutations, and diseases can generation new schemes of value-added knowledge as well as affective outcomes that support such Asian-oriented health projects.

From the vantage point of Biopolis in Singapore, the administrative frame CIMO—Chinese, Indian, Malay and Others—provides the ethnic categories that researchers can readily use for accessing medical records and other health data.

But the use and incorporation of such ethnic terms do not necessarily reproduce past systems of hierarchical structures, as a postcolonial scholar may insist. Rather, circumstances have changed, and bits and pieces of the recent past sustained or drifting into the present are folded into other schemes that often transform the old meanings, their deployments and interrelationships, in new systems of reasoning that complexly repurpose old fragments. This mechanism is quite obvious in contemporary biological and health sciences that are by and large universalized through the English language. As the linguistic form of cosmopolitan science, English is a social technology for communicating, negotiating, and dictating what counts in science research across the world.

In postgenomic sciences (focused on genetics and epigenetic effects on health), the body is a manifold archive of the possible in medicine, and life itself is stretched out as raw digital data under the molecular gaze.

For instance, the English language itself is constantly evolving, and in the biosciences, constantly inventing and naming key elements—gene, DNA, Crispr gene-editing—that cannot be easily replaced by native words in various contexts of research. In this discussion, the more mundane terms are ethnic categories first deployed in colonial Southeast Asia—Chinese, Malay, and Indian—and they have become repurposed by the emerging biomedical enterprise.

Biopolis is a hub for cosmopolitan sciences established by Singapore soon after the SARS outbreak in 1998. As Southeast Asian countries participate in the biomedical sciences, they discover more global uses of standard English-language ethnic terms intruding on local cultural understandings of these terms and transforming ethnicity into a marker for differences in health probabilities.

The United States is the center of gravity in postgenomics science, generating most of the ideas, practices, as well as terminologies for organizing health information. The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland is the major source of biomedical techniques that set global standards for reputable science. In the early 1990s, the NIH configured ethnoracial genomics by using race and gender (labels that variously correspond to U.S. census categories) as heuristic devices for studying the frequency of specific genetic traits and their potential correlation with serious diseases. This strategy is socially inclusive in a field dominated by attention to mainstream “white” populations and the male white body as the model of health and disease interventions. The use of racialized biomarkers is a technique of “racialization-as-inclusion,” or the folding in of minority populations in an attempt at social justice through more representative data. At the transnational level, however, postgenomic science is still pretty exclusionary. For instance, the Human Genome Project excluded samples from Asian populations who are also poorly represented in genomic research funded by the NIH.

When American medical science arrived in Singapore, it found a new Southeast Asia environment teeming with flora and fauna diversity. Because all experiments take place in the midst of uncertainty, an element of serendipity (pleasant surprises) enables creativity in designs. As a leading Singaporean biostatistician said, “This is] where the variants are.” He identifies Southeast Asia as an embarrassment of riches where the biological diversity has not yet been properly catalogued, and thus the genetic variations are still “in the wild” (Ong 2016, 39)

There are three creative moves: The first would be to collect genetic variations in the wild in order to make new databases. Developing such heterogeneous genetic catalogues challenges the normativity of existing databases in the West. The second move deploys the ethnic heuristic valorized by American socially inclusive genomic medicine. With Southeast Asia and East Asia dominated by three majority populations—commonly called Chinese, Malay, and Indian—researchers at Biopolis were quick to label their genomic samples as such. Biopolis’ initiative to use the ethnic heuristic for mapping Asian genetic data is a bold and necessary inclusive strategy for cosmopolitan science. The third creative strategy is to render Chinese, Malay, and Indian biomarkers that can circulate among far-flung labs.

The folding of ethnic biomarkers into genetic and disease mappings adds novel values to biomedical science. Such ethnic medical origamis support Asia-oriented biomedical research, clinical trials, and therapeutic development…Ethnic-stratified databases also enfold biomedical science and biopolitics, thereby generating legitimating effects for investments in biosecurity.

The ethnic-specified sampling of genetic variations, mutations, and disease susceptibility brings the data points into a productive correlation. Ethnic-differentiated GWAS (Genome-wide Association Studies) databases, when folded together, form a genetic architecture representing the majority Asian populations. The ethnic heuristic has also been deployed to connect ethnicities to major fatal diseases that take specific forms in Asian populations. The folding of ethnic biomarkers into genetic and disease mappings adds novel values to biomedical science. Such ethnic medical origamis support Asia-oriented biomedical research, clinical trials, and therapeutic development as well as attract big Pharma to Biopolis. Ethnic-stratified databases also enfold biomedical science and biopolitics, thereby generating legitimating effects for investments in biosecurity. At the same time, gathering a multitude of ethnicized fingerprints builds a new kind of effective self-knowledge that cumulatively folds in bodies, beliefs, and aspirations which can be identified as “Asian.”

The use of Asian ethnic biomarkers for sampling, accumulating, and linking health data allows scientists to circulate their findings beyond tiny Singapore to represent all of Asia, where majority populations designated by the same English terms may be found. Such ethnic heuristics are thus a form of “immutable mobiles” (Bruno Latour’s concept 1986) in that they carry the same indicator (e.g., Chinese or Malay) even as the data travel into multiple sites of biomedical research, clinical testing, and therapeutic intervention. Thus, colonially derived ethnic categories are being repurposed as a kind of global currency for enriching information and research in contemporary biomedical science.

I hasten to add that the use of the ethnic heuristic in biomedical databases is merely a first step in building a postgenomic science. Correlations between ethnicity, mutation, and disease provide clues for diagnosing patients, testing new medicine, and choosing a drug or therapy. Ethnic-specified sampling allows for a collective form of customized medicine. At the same time, the postgenomic body is conceived not as a stable object but as the variable effects of the play of folds; that is, the ethnic effects emerging from the interplay of genetics and epigenetics from the molecular to the ecological and the continental scales.

Asia Hugo: Errant Temporalities as a Single Wave

"When we found out that all of humanity was derived from a migration out of Africa, it reversed centuries of Eurocentrism. That all Asians probably came through Southeast Asia and migrated northwards, once again brings us closer together, conceptually, as one people."

Edison Liu (Ong 2016, 157)

Besides medical genetics that enfold ethnicity, population genetics offers another opportunity for reframing Asian variations in health information. But instead of deploying Asian differences to create a global database, population genetics allows for a different project: the enfolding of data on ancient DNA flows into a larger story about a unified Asian past that can inspire unity in the near future.

Asia HUGO is the Asian component of Human Genome Organization, an international research agency to promote the study of the varieties of human genomes. In the first decade of the century, Edison Liu, an American-Chinese who was the science spokesman for Biopolis, was also the head of Asia HUGO.

Liu saw his role as a great opportunity to cut through deep divisions in Asia by mobilizing a scientific network across borders. The seemingy discordant temporalities of ancient migrations into the continent can be aligned through genetic techniques to conjure up a different view of the past. Such scientific findings can challenge old anthropological assumptions (based on archaeological and linguistic research) about a two-pronged entry of early humans into Asia, and instead claim a single route into the continent. Why do a bunch of Asian Western-trained scientists align their genetic discoveries with an imaginary el called “Pan-Asian,” which hopes to reverse “centuries of Eurocentrism”?

Besides medical genetics that enfold ethnicity, population genetics offers another opportunity for reframing Asian variations in health information.

The Pan-Asian SNP Consortium assembled scientists together to share their findings about microgenetic variations (SNPs, or single nucleotide polymorphisms) among select aboriginal groups in Asian countries. Such a trans-Asian analysis of ancient DNA in migrant histories converging in the present will help account for mutations in Asian environments. The immediate aim was to train and coordinate researchers in 14 member countries and to persuade them to share data and hopefully begin to build an Asian genetic commons. This hypothesis based on SNP research was published in the journal Science in 2009 as “Mapping Human Genetic Diversity in Asia.”

But the stakes are bigger than tracing errant mutations and peoples flowing into Asia. By sharing and comparing data taken from different genetic pathways, population geneticists are able to fold the errant temporalities of multiple ancient gene flows into a single wave that swept out of Africa into Asia by way of India, Southeast Asia, and Australia before surging northward. Drawing on the findings, leading scientists from Singapore, Japan, India, and China talked up stories about ancient biological substances that united peoples in the region.

There is much elation and even a sense of genetic pride in the assembling of this continent-wide DNA research project, but national reactions vary. Indian scientists celebrate the suggestion that Indians are the mothers of all Asians. Their Chinese counterparts are not so happy, finding it rather unimaginable to be descended from darker people in the south. The aim is to stir up emotion and action across national sites of expertise in a politically factious and unevenly developed region. Second, the population genetics data configure a past-present by tapping into deep historical roots in order to underpin a contemporary imagination of sharing the present-future. This backward-looking detour is a necessary first step in a scenario-building exercise that hopes to influence cross-border action in the present-future. Third, therefore, affective forecasting, rather than scenario-making, stirs less a sense of urgency than of genetic pride in belonging to a distinctive continent and civilization, an ethical invention of an envisioned Asian collectivity.

Early twentieth-century political and cultural Asian movements had promoted a discourse of worldly redemption, incorporating older ideals of spiritual civilization as a source of moral authority, as Prasenjit Duara has argued. Unfortunately, in 1940, Japanese imperialism appropriated Pan-Asianism, using “Asia for Asians” as a euphemism to justify its invasion of Asian neighbors during the Second World War. The notion of Pan-Asianism (traceable to China’s founder Sun Yat-sen’s “Greater Asianism,” or Da Yaxiyazhuyi) continues to offer civilization as a supplement to nationalism, but it is a term that can be invoked only with care, given the sensitivities of smaller Asian countries. Also, since the 1980s, the economic rise of many Asian countries has proliferated different forms of regionalism (e.g., Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). Building on these networks, HUGO Asia hoped to promote scientific collaborations for shaping an inter-Asian research region. Science Pan-Asianism therefore is not just about configuring a metageography but about deploying novel discourses of history, anthropology, race, and culture in order to conjure up a new imaginary of inter-Asian values. The Asian SNP network created opportunities for scientists to tell gripping stories about braided ancient routes and roots, hoping with the aid of news media to play up their conjoined political, cultural, and ethical dimensions.

Against what they consider the Eurocentric rhetoric, the main goal of scientific Pan-Asianism is to rally different science communities in a fragmented region to collaborate for redemptive and ethical ends.

Against what they consider the Eurocentric rhetoric, the main goal of scientific Pan-Asianism is to rally different science communities in a fragmented region to collaborate for redemptive and ethical ends. The SNP story thus uses a mix of scientific findings, errant histories, and affective storytelling in a brave attempt to project a Pan-Asian imaginary, something akin to “geobiosociality.” The novel experience with SARS, a deadly infectious disease spread through easy contagion, rapid urbanization, and growing air travel, spurred scientists and epidemiologists (perhaps politicians) to register a new urgency to shape a discourse of disease as a regional biosecurity threat. The Pan-Asianist imaginary of temporal and genetic unities hopes to generate goodwill among nationalist Asian governments. Perhaps in the next anticipated epidemic, they will be more forthcoming in sharing data and coordinating efforts across political borders.

Growing Asian expertise in molecular biology bypasses the standard Western technology of “doing good globally” by taking matters into their own hands.

Biopolis genomics and the Asia Hugo network promote Asia-wide ownership of health matters, resources, and knowledge spanning the molecular to the regional and global. By contrast, PRC-based biomedical researchers tend to fold ethnic variations in a way that strengthens nationalist models and projections.

BGI Genomics: Comparative Minzu Database

"I have found that Tibetans are much better than all of us [Han Chinese] on the high mountain, and I wanted to know why."

Attributed to Jian Wang, former director of BGI Genomics, Shenzhen (Ong 2016, 213)

At China’s BGI Genomics office in Hong Kong, I saw a picture of the tree of life that is uniquely framed by a Chinese universe. BGM Genomics (a private company with links to the state) is the world’s largest sequencing enterprise and has an international presence that includes scanning the genomes of thousands of life forms (from microbes to humans) in order to map the planet’s biodiversity. At the same time, there is a pronounced nationalist tendency to fold life forms within the PRC’s political territory inward.

Whereas at Biopolis, data points on Chinese, Indian, and Malay DNA are used to generate databases that can “represent” majority races in Asia, in China, at BGI Genomics, researchers use the ethnic classification framework (minzu shibei) as the model for mapping mutations along the Hanzu–minzu axis. Like the tree of life model, the 56 ethnic nationalities entitled to political representation within the territory of the PRC orient the direction of biomedical research. As well, the cultural legacy of Han dominance in all areas of life tend to direct researchers’ focus on certain genetic problems and their scenarios of health threats anticipated for China’s future.

Briefly, a comparative Han-Tibetan (Xi zang) project illuminates how the search for DNA differences tends to reinforce existing political divisions and hierarchy.

A former director of BGI was Jian Wang, a serious mountain climber who has successfully scaled Mount Everest. On his climbs, he developed a personal and professional interest in the different capabilities of Han and Tibetan hikers.

In an interview, Wang confessed he wanted to know why “Tibetans are much better than all of us [Han Chinese] on the high mountain.”

A comparative Han-Tibetan (Xi zang) project illuminates how the search for DNA differences tends to reinforce existing political divisions and hierarchy.

In 2010, this question led to a BGI comparison of the breathing of highland Tibetans and lowland Hans. The study found a mutation, the EPAS1 gene (the “athlete gene”), that by restraining the overproduction of red blood cells at extreme altitudes, endows Tibetan subjects with greater resistance to altitude sickness than in the Han counterparts. In a further analysis of the BGI findings, biostatisticians in Berkeley claimed that the Han-Tibetan groups share many genetic traits, perhaps diverging nearly 3,000 years ago. For BGI, the Tibetan study is a coup, as the findings indicate the fastest case of environmentally driven epigenetic microevolution in a human population.

Tibetans, politically stigmatized in China and celebrated freedom fighters abroad, thus gained another nom de guerre as scientific heroes of phenotypic plasticity. But not overlooking their role as novel guinea pigs, Tibetan leaders have vigorously rejected the political implications of the genetic findings. They are especially upset about the mobilization of genetic data to support a claim of Tibetan descent from Han Chinese. Critics pointed to evidence that the culturally identified Tibetans have lived on the Tibetan plateau for over 10,000 years, far exceeding the timeline of divergent population evolution offered by the Berkeley researchers. Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibet at Columbia University, was quoted as saying that Tibetan objections viewed the findings as a strategy to provide scientific evidence that Tibet and Tibetans were integral parts of Han China as a race, a people, and a nation. From the perspective of BGI scientists, the significance of the findings was not sociopolitical but pharmaceutical, which, of course, has its biopolitical weight as well.

The larger point is to develop therapies from such genetic findings so that when climate change negatively affects the lowlands, BGI will be ready to customize medicine for Han Chinese (the political and demographic majority population) to thrive in the highlands. There are plans to do other Hanzu–minzu comparative genomics in order to discover robust DNA hidden in minority groups that have been “lost” by the Han majority in a history of coevolution (Yanhuang is invoked to register the emergence of the Han from a motley mix). Chinese biomedical researchers seem to view the entire PRC population as a gene pool for mining mutations that can be beneficial for the Han majority.

Genomic studies also seek to root out a spectrum of serious diseases (Down syndrome, schizophrenia, leukemia, thalassemia, and cancers, among others) that are prevalent in China’s population of 1.3 billion. In this great national effort, BGI focuses on projects framed by scenarios of common inheritable diseases, a rapidly aging population, and the demographic effects of climate change on China.

Risk of Fungibility and Misfolding

I have discussed different ways for enfolding ethnic variations as biomedical sciences migrate to Singapore and China: the folding of ethnic biomarkers into universalizable databases; the collapsing of ancient aboriginal temporalities into a single Asian flow; and a Hanzu–minzu matrix for discovering mutations that can inform customized medicine. In these different modes of integrating genetic differences, ethnicities become newly visible as biomedical, symbolic, and ethical/affective values in different Asian contexts and scales. Because these schemes connect varied markers—DNA, ethnicity, affects, bioprofits—they become somewhat interchangeable, thereby rendering life matters fungible across different domains (research, biopolitics, and bioeconomy). More than ever, being ethnic and being Asian matters at the molecular level.

More than ever, being ethnic and being Asian matters at the molecular level.

We see that as Asian ethnicity becomes a critical variation in genomic modalities, the “Chineseness” that is biomarked carries different meanings in alternate Asian databases. Researchers at Biopolis seek to globally circulate the English ethnic category “Chinese” as a placeless biomarker, whereas their counterparts at BGI Genomics further entrench the Mandarin term Hanzu as a nationally located biomarker. In PRC science culture, Han/Chinese can never be just a heuristic, but retains its heavily weighted symbolism of dominating genomic patrimony that subordinates other ethnicities. Emerging forms of Asian genomic self-knowledge are thus differentiating according to the trajectories as a universalizing or a nationalizing style of biomedical science. And because the ethnic signifier differs in relation to what is signified, the use of the same ethnicity “Chinese” cannot be assumed to map a stable genome geography, as some have suggested.

Indeed, the cascading scales of ethnic-inflected research interventions invoke have the effect of configuring Asia. From the vantage point of Biopolis, new projections of Asia have been devised as alternately a DNA commons, a bioscience network, and an epicenter of old and new epidemics. Such health projections render the continent a shifting space of problem-solving that should emerge in order to secure flourishing life in a shared future. From the viewpoint of BGI Genomics, the health problems of an elephantine country reinforces the preexisting Hanzu–minzu matrix that cannot be so easily disentangled and universalized as “Asian” health databases. The two biomedical complexes project different configurations of intervention. From the BGI perspective, Asia has collapsed into China’s national realm of health problematization, whereas from Biopolis’ perspective, the projected space of investigation is continental and somewhat open to the world.

* * *

Radical uncertainties permeate the practice and production of biomedical science while giving rise to novel forms that are themselves permeated with novel uncertainties and unexpected variability. In important ways, postgenomic science is becoming data driven and a digital method of risk prediction and scenario-making. Databases fold different schemes of probable correlations—among ethnicity, mutations, susceptibility, disease, and outcome—that is, capturing probabilities, not guarantees. Like all knowledge, biomedical sciences absorb new and disparate elements and become marked by inherent misapprehensions. Any ongoing process of folding, as in the case of amino acids, is vulnerable to change that distorts the functioning of the machine. Experiments calculate risks and probabilities in the space between the known and the unknown and are vulnerable to misfoldings and failures in a predictive medicine.

Radical uncertainties permeate the practice and production of biomedical science while giving rise to novel forms that are themselves permeated with novel uncertainties and unexpected variability.

An apt metaphor in the folding of protein molecules that allow organisms to live and thrive (move, use the senses, eat, and reproduce) is the following: Proteins are micro-origamis of survival and synthesis that keep our systems operating. Protein misfolding endangers the relationship between the cell and its surroundings, producing misshapen proteins that at a critical level contribute to neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Following the analogy, genomic mappings may not identify appropriate correlations between mutations and ethnicities to be that useful. After all, it is mainly a first step in sampling biodata among heterogeneous populations. Ethnic-stratified databases are useful controls for clinical trials seeking to test novel drugs on particular populations in order to attain a higher success rate. Collective customized medicines based on ethnic specifications are certainly more affordable than personalized therapies for cancer sought by affluent celebrity patients such as Angela Jolie. But with increasing sophistication in research, new perils emerge, from false positives in biomedical big data, to misaligned data bits, to possible gene wars triggered by the politics of affective validation and stigmatization. By seeking flexibility and fungibility in making more of life in Asia, scientists may unleash uncertainties they have yet to imagine.

References

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HUGO Pan-Asian SNP Consortium. 2009. “Mapping Human Genetic Diversity in Asia.” Science 326(5959): 1541–45.

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Ong, Aihwa. 2016. Fungible Life: Experiment in the Asian City of Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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