Event review: The Xenotext
Sometimes I get invitations that are just too intriguing to pass up. Last month I was lucky enough to visit the Whitechapel Gallery in London to hear a talk by Dr Christian Bök (left), an experimental Canadian poet who’s been working with bacteria to get them to do something pretty special.
Last year I was sitting on the science floor of the British Library (procrastinating) when I read that Craig Venter had encoded a line from James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man into the genome of his ‘synthetic lifeform’: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” I thought this was pretty neat.
Dr Bök has taken this idea and run with it. He explained how he has been engineering a bacterium to be the storage vessel for a poem but, at the same time, be a poet itself. The project is called the ‘Xenotext’. Confused? Stick with me, and I’ll do my best to explain it.
Bök’s talk began with a history lesson. The virus Phi X 174, isolated in 1935 by Nicolas Bulgakov (brother of writer Mikhail), was the first complete genome to be sequenced, by Fred Sanger in 1977. We learnt how a group of Japanese scientists searched the simple genome of this virus looking for messages from an extraterrestrial intelligence (I’m not kidding). Others spent their time searching for star charts within the genome of the virus SV40 (again, not kidding).
Bök thought, rather than spend time searching for messages in the genetic code, why not put them there yourself? The talk moved on to explain the difficulties of coaxing an Escherichia coli bacterium to write coherent poetry. A code was devised that attaches a letter of the alphabet to each DNA codon. This allows you to write a poem, put it through the cipher and have something come out the other side.
The problem was that Bök wanted to write a poem himself and have a different but legible poem come from the cipher. This turned out to be very difficult indeed. He claimed that there were over eight trillion possible DNA/alphabet codes, mostly providing nonsense text. Four years (and innumerable computer simulations) later, and he found one that worked.
The results can be seen in the photo below. The left poem is written by the poet, the right by the bug. I think they’re sonnets.
Here is the amino acid sequence that represents both poems. It’d be great to do some sequence comparisons to see whether it already exists in nature, or what function it might have…
Once a suitable DNA sequence had been designed, the protein was tagged with red fluorescent protein and expressed in E. coli. Bök explained that although the scientists he was working with were able to see the red fluorescence, his protein had been degraded. “Rather than produce the first bacterial writer, I produced the first bacterial critic,” he explained, much to the delight of the audience.
Ultimately the idea is to introduce the DNA/poem into Deinococcus radiodurans, an extremophile bacterium with the charming nickname ‘Conan the Bacterium’ – owing to its ability to resist a multitude of hazardous environments. By doing this, Bök is hoping to create a poem that will outlast humanity. Given the strict laws regulating the release of GM organisms, you have to wonder whether the poem will outlast humanity trapped in a freezer in a Canadian lab…
The talk concluded with discussions on the merits of using DNA to store precious works of literature, translation theory (books, not proteins) and Conway’s Game of Life. There’s probably a whole blog post in there too, somewhere.
Dr Bök was a thoroughly engaging speaker, with his explanations of some tricky science concepts perfectly pitched for the art-school audience. He also answered my ‘proper’ science questions with no trouble.
A couple of weeks later, I’m still trying to figure out all I heard at the event. Is getting bacteria to write poetry a pointless exercise? Well, I’ll let you make your own mind up about that. But is it a fascinating experiment? Undoubtedly.
Posted by Benjamin Thompson
Christian Bök is Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing Faculty at the University of Calgary. He is best known for his book Eunoia. More information about the Xenotext is available here.