Experimental poet puts poems into DNA

January 28, 2013

Christian Bök characterizes himself as an experimental poet, but not exactly as you might first imagine. "I'm quite literally doing experiments. I'm a poet doing R&D. Working in Area 51, trying to make anti-gravity machines. Show me something I don't know about language. Teach me something new. I'm part of a trajectory of writers that is trying to be more like scientists, providing rich, new and odd ideas that are very imaginative, more like a scientist than a literary artist." Bök, an English professor at the University of Calgary, presented his latest experiments—poems encoded in bacterial DNA—at SFU in the IRMACS theatre on January 25, Robbie Burns Day, to a packed room of both biologists and English literature scholars.

Bök takes inspiration from the founder of Futurism, Filippo Marinetti, who wrote in his 1912 Technical Manifesto: "Microbes—don't forget—are essential to the health of the intestines and stomach. There is also a microbe essential to the vitality of Art, this extension of the forest of our veins, that pours out, beyond the body, into the infinity of space and time."

Indeed Bök's goal is to embed a poem into the DNA of an extremophile bacteria or virus, e.g. phage Phi-x-174, which infects e. coli bacteria and is thought to have arrived on Earth billions of years ago via meteorite from interstellar space.

Bök's talk fascinated both the scientists and artists who attended. Stephen Collis, SFU professor of English specializing in contemporary English poetry said, "Bök pushes limits as did the Futurists, Dadaists, and other artists of the Avant Guarde, with the view of provoking and pushing people into uncomfortable areas."

The talk indeed began with a discussion of the curious findings of one Japanese researcher who claims to have discovered a star chart in the above phage genome, directing us to its home planet around the star Arcturus. To some extent Bök's work plays with such apophenia, the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data, though he counters this with an English alphabet cypher code for embedding poetry in DNA.

He assigns each of the 20 amino acids a letter of the alphabet, and uses a computer program that he developed to find "mutually encoded" words. "I worked on the project for over four years before making a breakthrough," says Bök.

Taking a cue from the way DNA base pairs complement each other, Bök's cypher code matches one letter of the alphabet uniquely to another letter. So A = T and H = N, etc. (see image below). This allows him to write clever short anagram-like poems that read back in alternately coded English. For instance, "Any style of life is prim" comes back through the cypher as "The fairy is rosy of glow."

Because each English letter corresponds to an amino acid, Bök sends his poems to a lab where they are made into bits of DNA and injected into bacteria, which produce the "poetic proteins". So far none of these proteins has been viable, but Bök makes 3D models of the proteins to display with his poems.

For biology professor Lynne Quarmby, Bök's lecture and reading was like watching a live performance of exquisite music. "He has a deep appreciation of science, reflecting scientific revelations back at us, which I find challenging and inspiring," she says.

Bök says, "The bacteria is not a poet, but a critic." To him, the whole exercise is just a provocation. "It's not meant to have any meaning or beauty. I have a lot of constraints that the organism imposes on me. It's making me express myself. I did not write these poems. I had to find them." Bök read the dictionary from cover to cover five times as part of his research. Finding two poems capable of speaking to each other through his cypher and through the DNA, yet still having poetic interest, is extremely difficult. "These are not poems that I would write. But it's amazing that these poems exist and I'm glad to have found them, and I deliver them up for what they are worth," says Bök.

"Bök takes creativity and commitment to a whole new level. Here is a poetry professor who has devoted many years to acquiring the scientific skill needed to carry out his vision. The result is an exquisite interplay between the humanities and the sciences, and an inspirational example for our researchers of the possibilities of boundless thinking," says Vice-President, Research Mario Pinto. The event was hosted by the Department of English, the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, and the Office of the Vice-President, Research.

Molecular biology and biochemistry professor Lynne Quarmby talks to poet and U. Calgary English professor Christian Bök.

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