What would happen to our culture, if humanity met a global extinction? Experimental Canadian poet Christian Bök opens new horizons for making DNA a durable storage system for our knowledge.
Since the beginning of humanity, our system of storing information has improved a lot.
Homer´s Iliad and Odyssey, which we now consider to be brilliantly written poems, should actually be pictured as a magnificent result of dynamic compositions. During the Oral Tradition era, they were transmitted from one generation to another by spoken word, until they could be fixed in a more stable form: the so-called written literature. Despite it is an exciting perspective to imagine our artistic products being constantly reshaped by an ever-rejuvenating process, the invention of written language has made documenting our history more reliable.
Although not fully free from interpretation, we can – at least – state facts. In order to reconstruct the development of civilization, we can easily rely on monumental literary works.
Let us now imagine the following scenario: what would happen to our knowledge, if humanity encountered an Apocalypse? In the event of a catastrophic war, a lethal pandemic or an ecological crisis, how could we save the vital and still vibrant meaning of our culture?
Nevertheless, even if this could be avoided, humanity must face the final judgement of its blazing star. As the Sun is progressively getting hotter, in about a billion years it might eventually cause the evaporation of terrestrial body of water, triggering permanent environmental modifications that will eliminate life on Earth, with the likely exception of resistant microorganisms. The Sun will then expand, finally engulfing and therefore annihilating the Earth in 7.5 billion years.
So here comes the challenging question: are we only going to leave behind dead pieces of our culture, literally abandoned dead wrecks on the surface of our planet?
To face this situation, the Canadian poet Christian Bök has developed his own idea of living poetry.
His on-going project is named The Xenotext experiment: he proposed to encipher a short verse into a sequence of DNA that would be subsequently engineered into the genome of the bacterium D. radiodurans.
D. radiodurans is a well-known super-resistant microorganism, likely to be capable of surviving a planetary collapse for far longer than we could imagine.
Interestingly, Bök’s concept moves beyond a simple solution for the long-term storage of poetic compositions that might survive human extinction: his genetically modified bacterial strain is also expected to produce literature itself.
The secret behind this natural creative behaviour is the elegant enciphering code developed by the experimental poet, together with a team of molecular biologists.
In essence, every alphabetical letter is assigned to a specific codon, which is then re-encrypted into a different letter. This unique correspondence between the original letter and the resulting letter is organized in order to transduce the introduced short verse into a newly formed meaningful one (Figure 1B).
To note: a codon (or triplet) consists of three nucleotides. During mRNA (messenger RNA) translation into a protein, every codon is assigned to a specific amino acid. A sequence of amino acids constitutes the primary structure of a protein (Fig. 1A).
Firstly, the success of the project relies on the biochemical quality of the engineered protein. It must undergo proper folding, being stable enough to avoid immediate degradation by the host. However, at the same time its cellular activity should be negligible, in order to have a good chance of being silently passed through generations and become a stable cellular feature.
If everything works well, the original sonnet Orpheus, that starts with Any style of life/is prim, will give rise to a second sonnet Eurydice, that starts with The faery is rosy/of glow (Fig. 1B).
Therefore, the legendary musician Orpheus will be finally able to resurrect his wife Eurydice from the damnation of Hades, making eternal their unity.
Whether the artistic and biological endeavours will be met is still uncertain.
But doubtless, Christian Bök is now exploring creative fields to make DNA a durable storage system for our culture.
To get more information on the topic:
Bök, C., “The Xenotext: Book 1”, 2015.
To watch: The Xenotext – A progress report
Received: 05.09.2018, Ready: 16.10.2018, Editors: ST, RG