Nature 458, 703 (9 April 2009) | doi:10.1038/458703a; Published online 8 April 2009

For anyone who ever said there's no such thing as a poetic gene

Claes Gustafsson1

  1. DNA2.0 Inc., 1430 O'Brien Drive, Suite E, Menlo Park, California 94025, USA


For anyone who ever said there's no such thing as a poetic gene

Art encoded in living cells has a long and illustrious history (J. Vallverdú Aesthethika 2, 2; 2006 and E. DaSilva Electron. J. Biotechnol. 7, 4; 2004). For obvious reasons, the focus has been to decode naturally existing biological codes (proteins or DNA) in the context of art, instead of coding new art into a biological system.

As Christian Bök proposes in Books & Arts ('Poetry in the genes' Nature 458, 35; 2009), the emergence of de novo gene-synthesis technology now makes the tools available to build poetry directly into coding genes.

In 2005, our organization made a gene encoding the first verse of the poem Tomten by Viktor Rydberg (50 words, or 800 base pairs). The verse was rewritten using the single-letter amino-acid code where O (no amino acid) was replaced by Q (glutamic acid) and spaces omitted. The protein sequence was backtranslated to DNA using the codon bias of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). The gene was synthesized and cloned behind an Escherichia coli promoter in a pUC-derived vector. The construct was then lyophilized on filter paper and sent out as a Christmas card (see The nucleotide and protein sequence of Tomten is available in GenBank, accession number EU600200. To our knowledge, this is the first example of an organism that 'recites' poetry.