Experimental poet Christian Bök has conceived a project of absurd ambition. For the last 13 years he has been working on The Xenotext Experiment, “a literary exercise that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics in the modern milieu .” Bök is pushing the limits of language and extending the purview of the contemporary poet. He has created an artifact of living poetry that challenges the boundary between poetry and science.
Bök has manufactured a “Xenotext” by writing a poem, encoding it within a sequence of DNA, and inserting it into the genome of a living organism. The cellular machinery of the organism “reads” the enciphered poem and synthesizes a protein. The structure of the protein can be decoded into a complementary poem, totally distinct from the original. The cell has essentially “written” its own poem in response to the poem penned by Bök.
The organism that has been selected to play host to The Xenotext is the extremophile bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans (D. radiodurans). Once described as the “most DNA damage-tolerant organism ever identified” , D. radiodurans is remarkable for its tolerance for inhospitable conditions. This germ can withstand very low temperatures, long periods of drought, partial vacuum, and 1000-times the dose of gamma radiation that can kill a human [2-5]. This makes it an ideal host for The Xenotext because any information carried within its genome is unlikely to degrade or change with time. The intent is for The Xenotext to remain intact and unaltered by natural selection so that it “might persist long after terrestrial civilization has gone extinct.” Bök has declared that he is attempting to “write a book that is quite literally immortal.”
Thirteen years ago Christian Bök read two articles that prompted the genesis of The Xenotext Experiment. He read how a group of scientists, led by Pak Chung Wong , had translated the lyrics to “It’s a Small World (After All)”  into a string of DNA and inserted it into the genomes of bacteria for storage. The team proposed that genetic information storage might outlast print and electronic media.
Bök also read the speculations of Australian astrophysicist Paul Davies on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence . Davies postulated that if an extraterrestrial civilization were to try to make contact with other life forms, instead of broadcasting radio signals or embarking upon a spacecraft, they would build cheap, small, self-maintaining, self-replicating machines that could adapt to changing environments. These machines could be sent out across the universe to colonize planets where intelligent life might evolve. “Fortunately these machines already exist,” wrote Davies. “They are called living cells.” He suggested that it would be worthwhile to search the genomes of ancient microorganisms for messages from beyond our solar system.
Responding to these ideas, Bök thought, “Why wait for such a civilization to communicate with us? Why not be that civilization? Surely poetry can be at the ground floor of these kinds of technological advancements that are going to characterize the 21st century.”
As an experimental poet, this kind of forward-thinking, high-concept exploration is how Christian Bök works. His previous book of poetry, Eunoia , was composed with a similar spirit. It features five chapters, one for each vowel, in which only words with one vowel are used. The book made use of 98% of all one-vowel words while minimizing repetition. Writing Eunoia required seven years of daily work. In this work Bök demonstrates the surprising richness and versatility of language even in the context of extreme constraints.
In some ways The Xenotext Experiment is a spiritual successor to Eunoia. Bök began work on the project by spending several years teaching himself genetics, biochemistry, and bioinformatics. Becoming literate in the topics of genetic and proteomic engineering would be necessary to deal with the technical aspects of the project and to converse with scientists (potential collaborators) and funding organizations without seeming like “a complete idiot.”
Writing the poems themselves required that Bök acquire computer programming skills. The pair of poems needed to be mutually enciphered, such that using the same code to translate each one would yield two distinct and complementary poems. This is done by pairing off all the letters of the English alphabet, so that whenever a given letter (E, for example) appears in the first poem, its complement (Y) appears in the second poem. Bök compares the process to solving a cryptogram puzzle from a Sunday newspaper, but instead of decoding a nonsensical string of letters into a meaningful sentence, a meaningful sentence is decoded into yet another meaningful sentence. Bök wrote programs to generate lists of mutually enciphered words based on different ciphers. Despite the fact that there are nearly eight trillion ways to generate the cipher, this turned out to be much more limiting than Bök had anticipated. Virtually every attempt produced too few, usable words for him to write with. It was four years of work before Bök was able to find a version of the code with a lexicon versatile enough to write with.
The two poems and the way Bök speaks about them are fascinating. The poem that Bök enciphers in DNA and inserts into D. radiodurans begins “any style of life / is prim”. He has nicknamed this poem Orpheus. The poem that is generated by the bacterium in response to Bök’s poem begins “the faery is rosy / of glow” and is nicknamed Eurydice. The substance of the poems seems almost oracular. The tone of Orpheus reflects the hubris of the poet’s project while Eurydice responds to its arrogance and references laboratory methods used to tell if bacteria are expressing an inserted gene. Geneticists regularly use red fluorescent proteins to signal expression of a transduced gene . When the bacterium’s poem is synthesized it emits a “rosy glow” that can be seen with a microscope, just as the poem describes.
When Bök talks about D. radiodurans, he refers to it almost as a co-author. The bacterium “reads” his poem and “writes” its own response. Bök is even willing to attribute more credit to the microorganism: “I actually have to generate these texts in response entirely to [the bacterium’s] own constraints. I’m not telling it what to do. Its biological rules are in fact telling me what to do.” Bök says he did not write the poems so much as he discovered what was possible for the bacterium to say.
Now that the poems had been written, the next step was to build the DNA sequence and insert it into an organism. Bök’s DNA poem was packaged within a repurposed virus and injected inside a test bacterium, Escherichia coli (E. coli) . If the DNA integrated into the genome of E. coli without incident, then Orpheus would be expressed by the cell and translated from DNA into protein, leading Eurydice out from the underworld into existence.
On March 31, 2011 Bök announced on Twitter that, “‘The Xenotext’ works!”  E. coli could be seen emitting the rosy glow of gene expression. However, Bök would soon discover that it would take more work to get E. coli to do what he wanted. It turned out that the protein being expressed was only half as large as expected . For some reason, the bacterium was destroying the poem. The gene sequence would have to be redesigned so that it might be tolerated by the organism. “I had not created the first microbial poet, but the first microbial critic!” Bök jokes.
Bök has since succeeded in getting E. coli to properly express The Xenotext, but is still struggling with the uncooperative D. radiodurans. On November 7, 2013, Bök reported another set of failed assays, adding that his funding had finally run out . Work on The Xenotext will be forced to halt while Bök attempts to raise the funds to finish the project.
The Xenotext Experiment has been a herculean undertaking. For 13 years Bök has struggled against incredible obstacles and suffered many setbacks, but he has not given up. He has compared himself to Sisyphus, doomed to push a heavy boulder up a hill only to see it roll down again. When asked about his persistence, Christian Bök smiles and responds, “Well, I’m the poet who does the impossible thing.” If he were to give up, he would only wonder if he had yielded too soon.
Christian Bök is trying to show how much is possible with poetry. He sees poetry as an epistemological activity akin to science that produces discoveries and contributes to knowledge. In Bök’s words, a poet is “a kind of scientist of language” who carries out experiments in their laboratory of poetry. A poet investigates language and our relationship with it in an effort to discover things that no one had known before. Bök’s intended audience is not really the aliens Paul Davies theorizes about. The Xenotext Experiment is not really about preserving the human race’s cultural heritage for all time. It is a challenge to poets to think bigger about their work and to re-evaluate their place in the modern world.
- Bök, C. 2008. “The Xenotext Experiment.” SCRIPT-Ed 5(2):227–231.
- Battista, J. R. 1997. “Against All Odds:The Survival Strategies of Deinococcus Radiodurans.” Annual Review of Microbiology 51(1):203–224.
- Moseley, B.E., and A. Mattingly. 1971. “Repair of Irradiation Transforming Deoxyribonucleic Acid in Wild Type and a Radiation-Sensitive Mutant of Micrococcus Radiodurans.” Journal of Bacteriology 105(3):976–983.
- Sweet, D.M., and B.E. Moseley. 1974. “Accurate Repair of Ultraviolet-Induced Damage in Micrococcus Radiodurans.” Mutation Research 23(3):311–318.
- Sweet, D.M., and B.E. Moseley. 1976. “The Resistance of Micrococcus Radiodurans to Killing and Mutation by Agents Which Damage DNA.” Mutation Research 34(2):175–186.
- Wong, P.C., K. Wong, and H. Foote. 2003. “Organic Data Memory Using the DNA Approach.” Commun. ACM 46(1) :95–98.
- Sherman, R. M., and R. B. Sherman. 1963. It’s a Small World.
Alexander B. Kim is a student at the University of Calgary majoring in neuroscience. Alexander has spent his summers working in neuroscience labs at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.