cover image Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology

Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology

Paul Rabinow, Rabinow. University of Chicago Press, $22.5 (198pp) ISBN 978-0-226-70146-2

Rabinow, a writer and anthropologist at UC-Berkeley, has written an ""ethnographic account"" of the Cetus Corporation during the invention of PCR, the polymerase chain reaction, a method for increasing the DNA in samples to usable levels and one of the most important techniques in biotechnology. This ""ethnography,"" however, is both opinionated and, at times, obtuse. After his descriptive and analytical introduction, Rabinow collects a series of interviews with staff (current and former) of Cetus and intersperses them with further exposition, observations and analysis. The book's best feature is the interviews, which allow the principals to tell their story-an intriguing story of how, at first fortuitously, then seemingly through sheer perseverance, an extremely powerful tool was invented. And this despite aggression, egotism, eccentricity, a lack of competent leadership and some bizarrely flawed personalities, such as Kary Mullis, who received a Nobel prize in 1993 for inventing PCR and who, in this account, outdoes Donald Trump in arrogance and immaturity. Rabinow's prose ranges from clear, fairly technical descriptions to self-conscious pedantry. His disclaimer that his account and his ""diagnosis"" are dependent on a particular perspective appears to be his justification for specious reasoning (he links Ronald Reagan's presidency with the penetration of ""capital into nature,"" even though the landmark Supreme Court decision allowing patent protections for genetic engineering was decided five months before Reagan's election). Unfortunately, Rabinow's long-winded introduction and conclusion detract from the story rather than further our understanding of it. (May)