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English professor writes genetic poetry into DNA of unkillable bacteria

By Fabian Mayer, August 6 2015 — 


University of Calgary researcher is nearing the end of his project to write a poem that lasts forever. English professor Christian Bök has been working to insert his poetry into bacteria since the early 2000s.

Bök calls his project The Xenotext. He aims to write a short poem, encipher that poem into genetic code, build a gene and then insert that gene into a particularly durable organism.

According to Bök, various artists and researchers have successfully encoded information into the genetics of living beings in the past. What makes his project different is what the organism does with the information.

“I’m genetically engineering a bacterium so it can become not only an archive for storing my poem, but can also become a machine for writing a poem in response,” Bök said.

Bök has written the poem and successfully implanted it into E. coli bacteria. However, his goal is to complete the project with Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacteria that can survive extreme temperatures, radiation and even the vacuum of space. The durability of the organism is an important part of the project.

“I’m effectively trying to write a book that might persist for a very long time, perhaps outlasting every terrestrial civilization,” Bök said.

Bök has sufficient funding for a few more attempts at completing the project. He will begin his next set of experiments this fall.

“I’m hoping in these next few assays that I’ll be able to work out the problems such that I can actually solve the work and succeed at it,” Bök said.

Bök learned skills ranging from computer programming to genetic engineering for the project, though he admits the work has been more challenging than first anticipated.

“It’s about figuring out how to appease what amounts to a tiny little demon, a tiny God,” Bök said.

He was inspired to start his project 15 years ago while reading articles on the subject. One of them discussed the idea that if an extraterrestrial civilization were to send out information, an effective way to do it would be encoding the information into living things.

“Given that we’ve already got access to technologies that permit us to do it, why not be that civilization,” Bok said.

Bök plans to publish the first of two books on the project in the fall. The Xenotext: part one will introduce readers to his work.

“It’s a book of poetry that presents information intended to provide a primer on genetics and lay the conceptual foundations for the experiment itself.”

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