Even if you are not personally ready for base jumping, you may enjoy watching extreme sports. Now we have extreme publishing: James Joyce has been quoted inside the DNA of a bacterium!
Researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute stitched together the entire genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. We have been adding and subtracting bits of DNA for decades, but this engineering feat is a milestone. This time, the scientists started from the raw recipe, the A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s that make up DNA. They cooked up the short pieces of DNA into a working genome. With some help from surrogate yeast cells, they produced a genome of 1,077,947 DNA letters. Then they installed the whole package into a different kind of bacterium. The entire genome was swapped out—and the converted cell switched species.
The goal is to make organisms for environmental cleanup and other commercial purposes. On the other hand, the dangers of customized “bugs” with unknown capabilities getting out into the open will make for many more years of debate and tension. But certainly, as we start building genomes from scratch, it is essential that we write unambiguous “watermarks” into the code that identify it as engineered.
That’s where bioengineering just met publishing. The Venter team encoded all the letters of the alphabet using the A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s. This bit of cryptology allowed them to insert words and phrases into the genome.
The watermarks included:
- The key to the alphanumeric code
- The names of the research team (and their boss, J. Craig Venter)
- A website address “where those who have solved the code can go to gloat”
- And, delightfully, a quote from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “To live, to err, to fail, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”
Confluence Book Services strives to keep up with new publishing formats for eBooks, print on demand options, and mobile apps. But no, we won’t be offering genetic encoding of your memoir any time soon, sorry!
The work was reported on the May 20 online issue of Science, and I’m drawing from Laura Sanders’ story in the June 19, 2010 issue of Science News. Visit www.sciencenews.org/ventercode.