Christian Bök has a rather odd project, The Xenotext Experiment:

I have conceived of The Xenotext Experiment, a literary exercise that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics in the modern milieu, doing so in order to make literal the renowned aphorism of William S Burroughs, who declared “the word is now a virus.” In this experiment, I propose to address some of the sociological implications of biotechnology by manufacturing a “xenotext” – a beautiful, anomalous poem, whose “alien words” might subsist, like a harmless parasite, inside the cell of another life-form….

I propose to encode a short verse into a sequence of DNA in order to implant it into a bacterium, after which I plan to document the progress of this experiment for publication. I also plan to make related artwork for subsequent exhibition.

I plan to compose my own text in such a way that, when translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by the organism, which, in response to this grafted, genetic sequence, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein – a protein that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself another text. I hope, in effect, to engineer a primitive bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also a useable machine for writing a poem.

While I appreciate the intellectual panache of the idea, I’m not sure it’s actually a good one to put into practice. (Thanks, Trevor)


  1. I fear a Tennyson potato prion spreading kuru throughout the world with lightning speed — mad poet disease without even eating a single ancestor’s brains — but I suppose I’m just being small-minded about the Victorian aesthetic.

  2. I echo John. I trust there will be rigorous scientific oversight.
    Otherwise, a Frankenpoem ?

  3. Furthermore, Bok says in the conclusions to his proposal:
    ….my attempt to build a literary parasite in the form of a “word-germ” has only the most miniscule, most negligible, chance whatsoever of producing any dangerous contagion (despite the alarmism of critics outside of biology).
    So he admits there is a potential problem, then tries to sneer it away. Dangerous “in the name of art” thinking.
    Disclaimer: I’m far from being an alarmist myself. I went to CERN recently without being in the least worried about being absorbed in a mini black hole…

  4. Not everything about William Burroughs was a good idea. Trust me. He lived in my neighborhood.

  5. marie-lucie says

    Given that the author is famous for his Eunoia, a work in five parts, each of which uses only one of the five vowel letters (making the e-poem a lot easier to compose and read than the u-poem), I assume that this proposal (which reads like a grant submission, including the mention of potential danger which is required in such submissions) is not an elaborate hoax, but the author seems totally unfamiliar with even the most basic principles of language structure and evolution, not to mention DNA, cell structure, etc. Perhaps the “beautiful poem” to come will consist only of the letters A, T, C, G? A hoax, perhaps not. A crackpot author, yes.

  6. Someone did something analogous in reverse – they transposed the structure of a protein into a melody, and it was beautiful. They kept at it with other proteins or projected proein structiures and they found that well-formed proteins made good melodies and mal-formed ones sounded “wrong”.
    Can’t find the article now that I want it.

  7. SnowLeopard says

    Jim, please do share that article if you find it. Based on your description I’m deeply skeptical of the project’s methodologies and findings — what tuning system did they use, how did they define and measure “beauty”, what were the tastes and musical background of the evaluator — but maybe they’ll surprise us.
    As for the xenotext project, it’s not clear from a quick skim what makes the author think that this so-called poetic protein would be evolutionarily conserved, even within the confines of a petri dish. Poem proteins don’t seem like they would provide much competitive advantage, and so presumably would mutate to the point of unintelligibility rather quickly, if they were kept at all.

  8. Do I understand correctly that this is a project to address the dearth of literary parasites? I must confess to never having noticed the lack.

  9. @Jim: see http://www.molecularmusic.com/
    Their related links section includes academic references, including several letters from New Scientist.
    See also: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg16922773.400-highprotein-vibes.html

  10. marie-lucie says

    Jim: Someone did something analogous in reverse – they transposed the structure of a protein into a melody,
    This is perhaps analogous, but not identical: they used a structure in one context as a point of departure for a composition in another context, they did not insert the protein itself into the musical composition. This is fine, because many abstract structural patterns recur in different contexts, but it is not what the xenotext author has in mind: he wants to insert a bit of poetry into a biological item which has a certain structure. How he wants to do that seems rather vague, even though he says he has enlisted the help of some prominent biologists. He would have to somehow transpose the poetic structure (which means a linguistic structure, something which he does not seem to know much about) into a biologically compatible, physical item. It seems to me that he would have to create a biological bit (but from what?) compatible with the gene or whatever he has in mind. This is “mind-boggling” indeed.
    David Marianovich, you know both biology and linguistics – we need your input.

  11. marie-lucie says

    (sorry, there is no h at the end of DM’s name).

  12. And no i towards the beginning, either. It’s a j.

  13. David Marjanović says

    I hope, in effect, to engineer a primitive bacterium

    Primitive, or bacterium? You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

    so that it becomes not only a durable archive

    The mutation rates are such that I’ve seen evolution overnight in a petri dish (compulsory lab work “Molecular Biology 1B”). Unless the protein does something useful – which is not a priori impossible, weirder things have happened; but it is of course extremely improbable –, it’s not going to last long. Unless the bacteria are simply frozen.
    BTW, concerning health risks, there are lots of completely harmless bacteria. The harmless lab strains of Escherichia coli might imaginably become capable of causing diarrhea; I think that’s what the tiny mention of risks alludes to.

    Perhaps the “beautiful poem” to come will consist only of the letters A, T, C, G?

    I suppose the one-letter codes for the 20 amino acids will be used. This does impose some constraints, but not many: not only Z and X but B will be absent (can’t remember the others; Y is tryptophan, Q is… something), and the poem will almost certainly start with M. It goes without saying that punctuation, spaces, and upper-/lowercase distinction are impossible to implement.
    Incidentally, if you take the DNA sequences printed in the book Jurassic Park and compare them to what they’re supposed to be, you find extra nucleotides. Translate them into amino acids, and you get, in sum, “MARK WAS HERE NIH”. Evidently some consultant immortalized himself there.

  14. marie-lucie says

    David, first of all let me apologize for making not just one but two mistakes in your name – serves me right for complaining when people wrote my own name wrong.
    About the xenotext, I understand now that the poem will use the letter names of the amino acids in order to insert the amino acids themselves in the same sequence as in the poem into the bacterium. How this would further the cause of literature I can’t imagine, but perhaps I don’t have enough imagination.

  15. Are there writers who who want to further the cause of literature?

  16. marie-lucie says

    Obviously this one wants to take literature into different direction, having poems self-composing inside bacteria (which seems to defeat his other purpose of treating bacteria as a “secure archive”).

  17. He’d probably disagree, but I felt he was furthering his own cause /”exploring his own limits”, in the name of literature, rather than doing anything of particularly literary interest.
    Are there notable people nowadays, though — and I don’t mean this rhetorically — who think of literature as a cause to be furthered in one special direction or another? Isn’t “the avant-garde” over and done with?

  18. Do people “publishing” novels via Twitter count?

  19. I hadn’t heard about that. Is the medium the message?

  20. The only thing I remember about the genetic code is that the excluded aminoacid letters are BJOUX (bijoux without the i) – and I learnt that from the compulsory computerscience class that I put off for as long as possible.
    Stupid thing to do, now that I look back on it, but I’ve never been one for having to do stuff. Pity. The lecturer drowned recently.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Gah. Y is tyrosine, not tryptophan. Mea maxima culpa…
    Also, O and U are used for two amino acids that are sort of encoded in the genome (O only occurs in some bacteria and/or archaea as far as I know, though), and B, J, X and Z are used for partial or complete uncertainty.
    Complete list of standard amino acids with three-letter and one-letter codes.

  22. Jim: another one.
    Life Music: The Sonification of Proteins, John Dunn and Mary Anne Clark, Leonardo Online. Though, again, there doesn’t seem to be any “nice protein = nice music” conclusion.

  23. Via Dave’s Complete list of standard amino acids:

    Asparagine was first isolated in 1806 from asparagus juice, in which it is abundant — hence its name — becoming the first amino acid to be isolated. The characteristic smell observed in the urine of individuals after their consumption of asparagus is attributed to various metabolic byproducts of asparagine.

    Thanks, Dave. This is good icebreaking material at parties (not that I get invited, but my daughter could use it).

  24. Just remember what Babe Ruth said to the Queen.

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