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Archive for the ‘Science!’ Category

The Living Words

In Science! on May 28, 2010 at 11:32 am

I love it when science and fiction collide in new and unexpected ways. The winner this week is the team of genetic engineers who included the immortal words of James Joyce as a “biological watermark” into the genome of the world’s first synthetic organism:

“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

As science writer Carl Zimmer notes, the genes that comprise these words in the synthocritter’s DNA are now subject to the same process of spontaneous mutation that drives evolution in all other living things. Since the quote was written in a part of the genome that has no practical effect on synthocritter’s life functions, mutations will collect over time until the words are no longer legible.

But wouldn’t it be great, instead, if changes could be selected for on the basis of reader response? If synthocritter offspring with nonsense changes died off, and if the remaining synthocritters became more viable as their quotes randomly changed to become more exciting, memorable, or emotionally resonant, we might evolve a line of synthocritter novels in just a few hundred million generations!

Philosophers like to imagine what might happen if you forced millions of monkeys to type nonstop at millions of typewriters, but practical matters of cost and cruelty have prevented them from putting their plans into action. A million synthocritters, however, would probably fit in a petri dish.

Just saying.