The history of science shows a shift from single-investigator 'little science' to increasingly large, expensive, multinational, interdisciplinary and interdependent 'big science'. In physics and allied fields this shift has been well documented, but the rise of collaboration in the life sciences and its effect on scientific work and knowledge has received little attention. Research in biology exhibits different historical trajectories and organisation of collaboration in field and laboratory differences still visible in contemporary collaborations such as the Census of Marine Life and the Human Genome Project. We employ these case studies as strategic exemplars, supplemented with existing research on collaboration in biology, to expose the different motives, organisational forms and social dynamics underpinning contemporary large-scale collaborations in biology and their relations to historical patterns of collaboration in the life sciences. We find the interaction between research subject, research approach as well as research organisation influencing collaboration patterns and the work of scientists.