By Heath McCoy
Twelve years ago, Christian Bök set himself on a poetic journey epic in its scope.
The associate professor of English at the University of Calgary sought to merge poetry and science in a mind-boggling fashion. He set out to insert a short poem into the genome of a bacterium – creating a living poem that could survive forever and write another poem. He calls it The Xenotext.
For most of us, the very notion seems nearly impossible to fathom. Indeed, at one point when he felt certain he had solved the scientific riddle only to have the results backfire, even Bök thought The Xenotext might be impossible to pull off.
“At every stage of this process obstacles have arisen in my path,” he says. “But I’m the poet who takes on projects regarded by other poets as impossible.”
Bök adds: “Modern poets may have to program computers or understand science to make relevant contributions.”
Bök’s ultimate goal has been to encode a short stanza into the genome of a bacterium known as Deinococcus radiodurans, which is so “unkillable” that it can even survive in the open vacuum of outer space. “It provides a very durable archive,” says Bök, “one that might outlast terrestrial civilization.”
The initial poem is to be implanted as a gene sequence that will, in theory, prompt the organism to respond by creating a protein which, when decoded, will reveal itself to be a second poem.
As if the biochemical constraints involved with making a DNA code read as poetry weren’t overwhelming enough, Bök also imposed strict literary constraints on The Xenotext. The two poems “had to be poetically interesting and beautiful,” he says. “And they had to talk to each other.”
According to Bök, the first poem is a “masculine assertion about the mythic creation of life,” while the second is a “feminine refutation about the loss of life.”
“They sing to each other,” he says. When the second organism writes its line, it actually fluoresces red, as if blushing in response to the first poem.
The research involved in creating The Xenotext has been intensive, with Bök stepping far outside the bounds of his literary world to master computer programming, molecular biochemistry and genetic engineering.
After years of dead-ends on the path, Bök made an exciting breakthrough last October, attracting much media attention when he got the genetic sequence of The Xenotext to work in the genome of E. coli. Deinococcous radiodurans, Bök explains, is too costly to use for such tests. But now that the experiment has worked with E. coli, Bök feels confident that the same sequence will play out on the indestructible bacterium.
He’ll know whether or not he is successful as early as the end of this month when the experiment is conducted with the intended bacterium at the University of Wyoming.
Given the titanic challenges he’s faced, Bök may be in for a powerful eureka moment, or an equally mighty disappointment, which will send him back to the proverbial drawing-board.
“I’m trying to be a poet of the 21st century,” he explains. “I’m less invested in poets who simply write about their own personal experience based on nothing more than the catechism of their training in literary history.“In the 21st century, such an exercise seems insufficient.”