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Mar 26 2010

A real-life supervillain-style plan

… for either immortality, or the demise of the human race. Well, almost. Sure as hell sounds insane enough to be one, anyway.

A Canadian poet by the name of Christian Bök has decided to write a poem, create a cypher to encode it in nucleotide triplets, then insert it into bacteria’s DNA. Not only that, but he intends on creating a second poem out of the proteins that his first poem codes for.

Since he only has four characters to work with – the nucleotides adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine – he first needs to create an alphabet that substitutes various triplets of nucleotides in the place of the twenty-six letters. In other words, AGT might correspond to “a”, while CTG could mean “b”, and so on. However, Bök can’t just choose the triplets at random, because for all the trillions of possible combinations, only a minuscule fraction will produce amino acids that also yields a workable vocabulary.

Bök is currently using specially designed software to find the optimal arrangement, and only once he’s figured that out will he actually write the poem. He has said that he will be somewhat limited in what sort of poetry he can write, and that most likely he will compose something with a “repetitive, incantatory quality.”

The article makes several references to his poem lasting billions of years. Knowing what we know about evolution and mutation, I seriously doubt that. Especially if the bacteria either dies out because the specific protein sequences are totally useless and take up too much energy, or if it has some other detrimental effect to the bacteria’s life cycle. Or worse, it could be a particularly infectious strain, and we have to wipe it out with antibiotics. One way or another, it’s unlikely anyone involved will have any intention of releasing it into the wild. So, how would it naturally outlast anything, if it’s frozen in a petri dish til human civilization collapses, then gets naturally selected out of the environment by hardier, less foolishly maladapted (e.g., NOT intelligently-designed) creatures?

Still, though. Gotta admire his supervillain moxy. It’s a totally pointless and egotistical endeavour, so I wish him the best of luck!

Hat tip to Miranda for sending me the io9 link, though I was totally going to post about it already, via this shorter Wired article. Honest.

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