The Xenotext: Poetry in DNA

Poet Christian Bök had an idea for a new work, but to execute it, he had to take a crash course in molecular biology. Years later, after learning computer programming and creating a DNA-codon-to-alphabet cipher, he’s finally ready for the next step: encoding a poem into the DNA of a bacterium.

The Xenotext is a carefully written original work which, when translated into gene sequence using Bök’s system, will cause the encoded organism (in this case, D. radiodurans) to produce a viable protein–itself a verse in response to the original text. The exact wording of The Xenotext is unreleased, but according to Bök:

It’s a very short poem; a very masculine assertion about the aesthetic creation of life. The organism reads the poem, and writes in response a very melancholy, feminine – almost surreal in tone – poem about the aesthetic loss of life. The two poems are in dialogue with each other.

An interview with Bok regarding the nature of his plan is available on New Scientist’s CultureLab. Bok’s work is currently on display at the Text Festival in Bury, UK.

Deinococcus radiodurans is one of the most radioresistant organisms known. It can survive cold, dehydration, vacuum and acid, and the polyextremophile has been listed as “the world’s toughest bacterium” in The Guinness Book Of World Records.

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