Michael Lista on Christian Bök’s The Xenotext
On the heels of the colossal success of Eunoia, a prose poem whose five chapters each use only one vowel — winner of the 2002 Griffin Prize, and by some counts, the bestselling book of Canadian poetry, ever — Bök went casting around for a new project. He came across news of a scientist at the Pacific North West National Laboratory, Pak Chung Wong, who translated the lyrics to “It’s a Small World After All” into the four-letter nucleotide alphabet of DNA, which he then inserted into deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium that can withstand extreme heat and cold, acid, otherwise-deadly radiation, even the vacuum of space. The encoded data survives cell mitosis, which transforms this microscopic organism into a kind of immortal book, able to live through not just the fire at the Alexandrian library, but the explosion of our sun.
This got Bök thinking. He wanted to transform deinococcus radiodurans into not just a new kind of book, but a new kind of author as well. And so he immersed himself in graduate-level molecular biochemistry, genetic engineering, computer programming and proteomics, the study of proteins. Armed with this new knowledge, he imagined a cipher, a code that would tether each letter of our alphabet to the four genetic nucleotides — adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. Each triplet of nucleotides would correspond to a letter of the alphabet, enabling Bök to translate his own poetry into the very language of life. But Bök decided that he wanted his bacteria to respond to his implanted poem, and produce its own poem in the ciphered language of DNA, in the form of a protein that the bacteria would “write” in response.
Here’s the entire piece (a gem).
Will The Xenotext be finished this year? Stay connected to the web!
Here’s Bök’s announcement of progress from 2011, The Xenotext Works.