For some of you, writing poetry may be a breeze. For others, it may be easier to ask you to sit through your next dental exam without wincing. But Canadian poet Christian Bok’s next poetry project is a lot harder than it looks. This project, dubbed the “The Xenotext Experiment” involves writing two poems — sounds easy right?

What makes it tricky is that the first poem will be encoded into the DNA of a bacterium! AND, the second poem … will be created by the bacteria — not so easy!

Did you know? The genetic code can be thought of as a “blueprint” of life — determining our characteristics (eye and hair colour, ability to curl our tongues etc.).

The first step involves writing the original poem and then translating it into the bacteria’s own DNA (genetic code), which is only composed of the following four letters: A, G, C and T. So far, so good. The next tricky step is that the bacteria will then read the DNA code to make protein. Now proteins, the building blocks of cells (i.e.. the collagen in our hair, the keratin in our skin) are made of amino acids, which are represented by 20 letters of the alphabet. And here’s the hard part: Christian Bok wants the final protein product to form the second poem.

Did you know? Ribosomes, found inside cells, read DNA (genetic code) to make proteins.

Another cool thing about this poetry is that it will last a long time. How so?

Deinococcus radiodurans

Transmission electron microgragh (TEM) of D. radiodurans acquired in the laboratory of Michael Daly, Uniformed Services University, Bethesda, MD, USA

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Well, the genetically-engineered bacteria, known as Deinococcus radiodurans and nicknamed Conan the Bacteria, that will receive this new piece of DNA is the most radiation resistant organism known at present time. It is a very hardy bacteria, capable of withstanding (well I already said it), radiation, but also extreme heat, dehydration and low temperatures.

Talk about poetry that lasts….

Read More!

Conan the Bacteria

Christian Bok’s Xenotext experiment

Further information on genetics

Article first published on May 4, 2010.

Iris Liu

I am a medical student at the UBC, Island Medical Program. Between coordinating for Gene skool, learning about medicine, and playing on my guitar, percussing my food and co-managing the In the News section of CurioCity, I occasionally wonder when I sleep! But all is well when I take the time to just reflect on the day by reading my Bible and writing plays about a fictional character named Cindy.


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