"Genetic engineers don't make new genes, they rearrange existing ones."
April 4, 2011 5:07 AM   Subscribe

The Xenotext Experiment is Christian Bök's [Previously],"nine-year long attempt to create an example of “living poetry.” I have been striving to write a short verse about language and genetics, whereupon I use a “chemical alphabet” to translate this poem into a sequence of DNA for subsequent implantation into the genome of a bacterium (in this case, a microbe called Deinococcus radiodurans—an extremophile, capable of surviving, without mutation, in even the most hostile milieus, including the vacuum of outer space)." [Via]

An Interview with Christian Bök [PDF]. Explanation of project Video 1, Video 2. More Videos.
"I have conceived of The Xenotext Experiment, a literary exercise that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics in the modern milieu, doing so in order to make literal the renowned aphorism of William S Burroughs, who declared “the word is now a virus.” In this experiment, I propose to address some of the sociological implications of biotechnology by manufacturing a “xenotext” – a beautiful, anomalous poem, whose “alien words” might subsist, like a harmless parasite, inside the cell of another life-form...."

I propose to encode a short verse into a sequence of DNA in order to implant it into a bacterium, after which I plan to document the progress of this experiment for publication. I also plan to make related artwork for subsequent exhibition.

I plan to compose my own text in such a way that, when translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by the organism, which, in response to this grafted, genetic sequence, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein – a protein that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself another text. I hope, in effect, to engineer a primitive bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also a useable machine for writing a poem."
posted by Fizz (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I thought language is a virus?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:28 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Christian Bök is the Evel Knievel of Canadian poetry.
posted by oulipian at 5:32 AM on April 4, 2011 [8 favorites]

This will not end well.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 5:46 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

The coolest thing about this entire thing is this:
Yesterday, I received confirmation from the laboratory at the University of Calgary that my poetic cipher, gene X-P13, has in fact caused E. coli to fluoresce red in our test-runs—meaning that, when implanted in the genome of this bacterium, my poem (which begins “any style of life/ is prim…”) does in fact cause the bacterium to write, in response, its own poem (which begins “the faery is rosy/ of glow…”). I have finally demonstrated the viability of the gene (which has taken me about a year to design).
posted by Fizz at 6:00 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is extremely interesting, and it parallels a less intense, but broader, phenomenon in contemporary architecture. It's a great concept- applying authorship at the lower levels of a complex system to inject human sense into an alien material, superimposing two kinds of meaning (local biochemical effects in host cell, remote biochemical effects in poet's brain).

But it's total fiction. Not saying that you can't encode an arbitrary string of english as DNA, and inject it into a cell. Not saying that a human-designed gene (or tweak to existing gene) can't result in a viable mutation. In this case though (and I haven't read it comprehensively yet, I'll admit), it seems like another case of using genetic material totally innocuously- not really changing the cell, just pumping it full of alienated, inexpressible data.

On further reading: "my attempt to build a literary parasite in the form of a “word-germ” has only the most miniscule, most negligible, chance whatsoever of producing any dangerous contagion (despite the alarmism of critics outside of biology)."
OK, so he owns up, I like him.

Then: "I hope that my poem might urge readers to reconsider the aesthetic potential of science, causing them to recognize that, buried within the building blocks of life, there really does exist an innate beauty, if not a hidden poetry"

And I'm with him here. Maybe the best part of this work is how it sets up the author's own critique of it after the fact.

Nice post.
posted by Casimir at 6:53 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

> Christian Bök is the Evel Knievel Ken Carter of Canadian poetry.

posted by scruss at 6:58 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been a fan of his for quite some time now. I am glad to see that he hasn't put his feet up.
posted by ob at 6:58 AM on April 4, 2011

For fans of Christian Bök, I'd also urge you to find Adam Dickinson, a Canadian eco-poet that was a former professor of mine. He currently works at Brock University in Southern Ontario, Canada. He's a cool guy and writes some beautiful environmentalist poetry.
posted by Fizz at 7:01 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Calgary has the best creative writing programme in Canada. I bask in Christian's reflected glory over in the sociology department... at least now since the "Faculty of Arts" amalgamation I can say we're in the same faculty.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 7:13 AM on April 4, 2011

What is the encoding algorithm?
posted by demiurge at 7:56 AM on April 4, 2011

What is the encoding algorithm?

I'm not too certain but if you're on twitter you could probably ask him @christianbok
posted by Fizz at 8:19 AM on April 4, 2011

So genetically engineered superbugs are good as long as they write poetry? What could possibly go wrong?

Using a hardy host sounds like a very bad idea, in the unlikely event that his little poetry machines turn out to be baddies for some unanticipated reason. Personally I think the whole project is dumb, but if he's going to do it he should use a deliberately-weakened host that can't survive out in the wild, like certain lab strains of E. coli.
posted by Quietgal at 8:40 AM on April 4, 2011

I'm not too certain but if you're on twitter you could probably ask him @christianbok

I don't think you can sufficiently describe an encoding algorithm from English text to DNA in 140 characters.
posted by demiurge at 8:41 AM on April 4, 2011

I don't think you can sufficiently describe an encoding algorithm from English text to DNA in 140 characters

Well I was thinking he'd direct you towards the answer in some article or an e-mail or something, it was more for CONTACT purposes than anything else.
posted by Fizz at 9:31 AM on April 4, 2011

First of all, as far as the fear of genetically engineered superbugs go - don't worry about it. Seriously. Deinococcus radiodurans is non-pathogenic. In my admittedly limited armchair internet research here, it doesn't pose a threat to anything. It's just very hardy. Additionally, his "genetically engineered superbug" glows red. That's about it. It's not going to have any evolutionary advantage over non-engineered bacteria of the same species.

Secondly, perhaps I'm missing some aspects of this, but since folks have been encoding messages into DNA for quite sometime (I knew a girl who won/placed the Intel Science Fair doing that in 2000 or so), I don't see all that much artistic revolution here. The line about rosy glow in relation to RFP (or whatever red fluorescent protein he used) is a neat touch. Scientifically, so he cloned something. Actually, he had someone else clone something. I cannot say I am terribly impressed. Although I do wonder how susceptible to antibiotics this bug is - it can take a lot of damage from the environment, thanks to some awesome DNA repair system, it looks like. Will ampicillin still gum up its ribosomes, though?

Similarly, the plan to visualize the work by "for example, to submit the gene to "DNA" a company that makes giclée prints of abstract artworks produced through DNA-fingerprinting." FFS, you're an artist with access to a lab, do it yourself.
posted by maryr at 9:33 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

but also a useable machine for writing a poem

A bacterium might be used as a biological storage and playback device, but unless there's a whole suite of helper proteins that enzymatically construct the equivalent of stanzas, etc. from translating base genetic information, there's no way that bacterium will ever write an Artful poem, at least the way humans write poems.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:59 AM on April 4, 2011

I hope, in effect, to engineer a primitive bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also a useable machine for writing a poem.

If only there were some sort of "chemical soup", or perhaps some sort of "meat machine" that could not only serve as a storage medium and writing implement, but could compose poetry on its own, despite being made of ordinary molecules.

(regarding the message in DNA, I think someone else got there first, and it was an afterthought to engineering the bacterium.)
posted by benzenedream at 1:05 PM on April 4, 2011

I can take a shot at describing the encoding algorithm. Basically, I think it sounds like he wants to write a poem using the letters available in DNA code (i.e. 4 different letters, restricted to A, T, C, G). This poem might presumably be a little nonsensical since there's not a lot of room for verbiage (a poem about a CAT who GAGs?). Anyway, where things can get interesting, is that that DNA code will eventually translate to produce the gene product, a protein: and proteins are constructed code-like as well, except that there are 20 different letters available (these are the different amino acids - every letter except B, J, O, U, X, Z,).

Anyway, what this means is that he'll need to write a something that has two hierarchies of code, both sounding reasonable from poetic stand point. Having an algorithm to help you do this will save a ton of effort (as well as not being too difficult to program - see field of bioinformatics).

Speaking as a biochemist, what will be interesting is to see how the protein fares in the cell. I suspect, just making a protein string out of letters that happen to be creatively strong, won't necessarily mean that the protein will behave (or do anything for that matter except maybe get tagged for removal) in the cell.
posted by davidng at 1:32 PM on April 5, 2011

So you think he's using the amino acids to write a second code, which can be decoded to his poem? I mean, if he can get THERENCEWASAMANFRMNANTVCKET to form a functional protein, that would be impressive, but it seems highly unlikely.
posted by maryr at 3:06 PM on April 5, 2011


I SO want that to be a real gene sequence. Wait - let me check to see if it does exist...
posted by davidng at 4:52 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a protein in Anopheles darlingi (a kind of mosquito) that has the sequence: MANFRMNA

P.s. I went to http://blast.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Blast.cgi and hit the blastp link.
posted by davidng at 4:56 PM on April 6, 2011

Yeah, I was racing you and found the same, but then I got distracted BLASTing SPIDERMAN (which has some close hits: a Lactobacillus = TPIDERMAD; a Vitis vinifera = RPIDERMEN; and the frustratingly close SPDERMAN Thermoproteus uzoniensis, found near a Russian volcano).
posted by maryr at 5:04 PM on April 6, 2011

Also: no luck finding a REDHERRING, but the microbe that causes caveties does contain a REDHERR. Clearly my tooth decay was caused by COMMUNISTS!
posted by maryr at 5:09 PM on April 6, 2011

I think this is a bit old, but here's a list of all dictionary words found in SWISSPROT.

posted by benzenedream at 3:57 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh my goodness. So, I follow that link, and I start reading through the list, seeing if I'll come across one of the dozens of proteins my company works on... and there's MY protein that I work on all the time and am beginning to hate with a passion! Neat!
posted by maryr at 8:48 PM on April 8, 2011

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