POETRY IN TRANSLATION: IN-GENE-IOUS! Canadian poet Christian Bök is known for his experimental work..in literature. His best selling poem, Euonia, uses only one vowel per chapter (e.g., “Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech”).
• Living Poetry: It’s taken him nine years to code a poem into a sequence of DNA and express it in bacteria, where it makes a protein which responds back in poetry. Confused? The central dogma of biology is that the 4-letter DNA alphabet (ACGT) can be arranged in a triplet code which in turn corresponds to the amino acids of a protein. The 20 amino acids each have a single letter code, so they can spell out words as well. For example, the triplet GGA codes for amino acid Glycine which is symbolized by the letter G. So, one could write out words in both DNA and protein. There are challenges: for example, there is no amino acid for the letter J so I can’t spell my name out as a protein 😦
• Xenotext: Bök devised his own coding scheme and used it to create a gene, gene X-P13, that began a poem, ““any style of life/ is prim…”. Inserted into bacteria, it produced a harmless protein that glowed red and spelled out the poetic response beginning, “the faery is rosy/ of glow…”. Next, he wants to insert it into Deinococcus radiodurans, an extremely hardy, radiation resistant microbe where he hopes it will live forever, outlasting all human artifacts.
• Literary Criticism: Natural selection is a tough critic. If this protein has no useful role in the bug, it will likely accumulate mutations and be lost rapidly. Even if the protein survives, both the DNA and protein code could change because it is not the DNA or protein sequence that is important, but the three dimensional structure. Back to grad school, Dr. Bök 🙂
H/T to Gnotic Pasta for introducing me to the world of bacterial poetry!