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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.

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