“Science is the Poetry of Reality”
In “enemies of reason” Richard Dawkins states that he thinks of Science as “the poetry of reality”. That idea may soon be more fully realized than perhaps Dawkins ever imagined, thanks to Canadian poet Christian Bok. Bok is a world renown experimental poet most famous for his poetry book Eunoia in which he only uses a single vowel per chapter (of which there are five). His latest attempt at experimental poetry is to literally insert a poem of his into the DNA of a living organism.
The organism in question is the bacteria Deinococcus radiodurans, the choice of which was no arbitrary decision. Deinococcus radiodurans is nicknamed “Conan the Bacterium” because it holds the world title for most resistant organism to radiation. The amazing resistance to radiation that this bacterium shows is thanks to a unique ring structure into which it’s DNA is formed. What the ring structure means is that pressure is applied all the way along the chain in such a degree that the normal severing of DNA by radiation does not occur. Radiation is still able to split the polypeptide chain in the DNA molecule but instead of the pieces floating away like in a normal DNA strand the pressure caused by the circular structure holds the pieces in place until they are able to “glue” themselves back together. This unique structure is therefore important if Bok wants his poetry to be preserved in future generations. If the poetic sequence were encoded into a different species of bacterium then over time radiation would sever and re-arrange the words into nonsense.
So the questions remains of how this will be achieved and what the poem will be. While I haven’t found much information on the specific mechanism that will be used to encode the sequence the most likely candidate is via plasmid integration. Without going into too much detail plasmids are small rings of DNA that occur separately in the cell to the chromosomal DNA in the nucleus. Plasmids are not considered life as they do not encode any genes for replicating or reproducing. Instead they are physically passed from one bacteria to the next through a process called conjugation. To cut to the chase, scientists are easily able to insert new plasmids into a bacterium that will integrate permanently into the chromosomal DNA. This is process is so easy that undergraduates like me are even able to do it!
As for the particular poem that Bok is going to insert, that remains to be seen. Unfortunately for Bok the genetic alphabet consists of only four letters; A,G,C,T which correspond to the nucleotides Aadenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. In order to construct an intelligible piece Bok is in the process of developing a cipher in which particular each triplet of nucleotides (i.e. AGT, TCA, AAG) will correspond to a particular letter of the English alphabet. All Bok has said so far about the content of the poem is that it will likely have an incantatory quality similar to a spell or ritual.