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The Xenotext: Creating the poetry bug

“I’m the poet who does the impossible thing. I am the poet who aspires to have the biggest imagination in the room,” Christian Bök says bluntly. Yet his grandiose inventiveness has been focused on the most minuscule attempt at verse. After 11 years of working on what he’s dubbed “The Xenotext,” Bök is close to creating the world’s first living poem. A short stanza enciphered into a string of DNA and injected into an “unkillable” bacterium, Bök’s poem is designed to trigger the micro-organism to create a corresponding protein that, when decoded, is a verse created by the organism. In other words, the harmless bacterium, Deinococcus radiodurans (known as an extremophile because of its ability to survive freezing, scorching, or the vacuum of outer space), will be a poetic bug.

Bök first conceived of “The Xenotext” after reading a scientific article by Pak Chung Wong at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington and another by Arizona-based astrobiologist Paul Davies. Wong encoded the lyrics to Disney’s It’s a Small World After All into bacteria. Davies speculated that if extraterrestrial civilizations wanted to make contact with other worlds, they would send highly adaptable self-replicating bio-probes—something akin to a bacterium or virus—that could carry messages and survive the destructive environment of outer space.

In October, Bök, 46, professor of creative writing at the University of Calgary, got word from a California lab that his DNA concoction had caused a test organism to fluoresce, signifying that it was responding to his gene sequence. It had done so on a few prior attempts, but when the scientists examined the results, they discovered the organism was cutting off part of the protein string. “That was bad news for me,” says Bök, because it meant his creation was being destroyed. “Instead of having created the first microbial writer, I had effectively created the first microbial critic.” Now, at last, the organism created a properly folded protein that survived in its cell and could be interpreted as the first bacterial attempt at composing verse.

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