Collecting, Comparing, and Computing Sequences: The Making of Margaret O. Dayhoff’s Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure, 1954–1965
Collecting, comparing, and computing molecular sequences are among the most prevalent practices in contemporary biological research. They represent a specific way of producing knowledge. This paper explores the historical development of these practices, focusing on the work of Margaret O. Dayhoff, Richard V. Eck, and Robert S. Ledley, who produced the first computer-based collection of protein sequences, published in book format in 1965 as the Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure. While these practices are generally associated with the rise of molecular evolution in the 1960s, this paper shows that they grew out of research agendas from the previous decade, including the biochemical investigation of the relations between the structures and function of proteins and the theoretical attempt to decipher the genetic code. It also shows how computers became essential for the handling and analysis of sequence data. Finally, this paper reflects on the relationships between experimenting and collecting as two distinct “ways of knowing” that were essential for the transformation of the life sciences in the twentieth century.