Gayathri Vaidyanathan

Environment/science reporter

Could a bacterium successfully shepherd a message through the apocalypse?


PNAS; Feb. 28, 2017

For more than a decade, Canadian poet Christian Bök has been toiling on a book of poems. But his is not the typical authorial angst: Bök intends his poems to outlast human civilization, and indeed the planet itself. And his authorial palette is not typical either: rather than inscribing his poems on paper, he’s attempting to put them in a bacterium.

Bök, a visiting artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Art, Science & Technology, got the idea for microbial time capsules in the early 2000s after completing a book of experimental poetry (1). It was such a big commercial hit that he felt he had the artistic license to do something truly weird.

Bök came across an article in a computer science journal in which computer scientist Pak Chung Wong at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, along with his colleagues, had contemplated a data-preservation problem of apocalyptic magnitude (2). What would happen to our cultural and scientific legacy if nuclear war or a natural disaster wipes out all of our information-storing infrastructure?

Wong was looking to outlast natural disasters, citing practical concerns about national security. Bök took it a step further, initiating a project meant to outlast both humans and the planet while transmitting a sense of humanity and its customs, something like the Voyager spacecraft’s famous golden record purports to do for alien life.

Locked Away

Without adequate maintenance, all manmade information storage devices—hard drives, silicon chips, stone tablets, Palmyra—would be destroyed over time. Wong and his colleagues proposed a longer-lasting solution: store the information in the genome of an extremophile bacterium that can survive inhospitable environments.

The key to bacterial messages, Wong found, lies in the vessel itself. Drop the extremophile Deinococcus radiodurans in acid and it survives. Eject it into outer space and it thrives. Desiccate it; store it for a million years and pull it out, and the bacterium would go back to normal.

Remarkably, the genome of D. radiodurans suffers few—if any—mutations, even when blasted with ionizing radiation. It’s been nicknamed Conan the Bacterium by NASA. As a proof of concept, Wong and his colleagues inserted a tiny message—the lyrics of the song “It’s a small world after all”— encoded in DNA into the genome of this bacterium and allowed it to multiply for 100 generations. The embedded song survived without mutations, according to work published in 2003 (2). Although 100 generations isn’t many for showing genetic stability, Wong had offered up proof-of-principle that Deinococcus messages could persist unaltered.

Around the same time, Bök read an article by astrophysicist Paul Davies, who suggested that extraterrestrials might venture to send humankind messages encoded in the genome of spores, viruses, and bacteria rather than in radio signals (3). This seemed a wonderful sci-fi premise to Bök and he wondered why our civilization should not embed messages similarly in living cells. “Poetry should be at the ground floor of this activity,” he says.

So began The Xenotext (4). When completed, it will be a book of poetry crafted not of paper and glue but of DNA and protein, bound within an extremophile. The organism’s genome would encipher a 14-line poem by Bök, named “Orpheus.” The bug’s replication machinery would read the DNA and assemble a protein. The sequence of amino acids would encipher another 14-line poem, called “Eurydice.” Hence, the bug would be both a storage vessel and a poem-generator. The protein would also make the bug fluoresce red via an mCherry red fluorophore tag.

Poetry, Reimagined

“Orpheus” begins with these lines:
Any style of life
is prim

To which the organism responds by building a protein that encodes “Eurydice”:
The faery is rosy
of glow

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