Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Emily Singer

A View from Emily Singer

Poetry Written in DNA

Specially engineered bacteria will wax poetic.

  • March 5, 2009

A Q&A in Nature this week highlights Canadian poet Christian Bök’s plans to write poetry into the genetic code of bacteria. The project, dubbed Xenotext, was inspired by a previous feat of genetic engineering in which microorganisms were made to carry the tune of Disney’s “It’s a Small World (After All)” in their DNA.

Bök describes how the poem will be encoded:

The poem can be most easily encoded by assigning a short, unique sequence of nucleotides to each letter of the alphabet, as Wong has done. But I want my poem to cause the organism to make a protein in response–a protein that also encodes a poem. I am striving to engineer a life form that becomes a durable archive for storing a poem, and a machine for writing a poem–a poem that can survive forever.

He also describes his hopes for future generations to find the poem:

My project is analogous to building a pyramid and then leaving undecipherable hieroglyphs all over it: later civilizations may not understand the language, but its presence will testify to the enduring legacy of our own civilization. An alien readership hundreds of thousands of years from now might recognize that such tampering with an organism constitutes evidence of an advanced intelligence trying to communicate.

Couldn't get to Cambridge? We brought EmTech MIT to you!

Watch session videos here
More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Online Only.
  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.