Craig Venter has created life. Or at any rate half-life: a synthetic copy of the goat-pathogen Mycoplasma mycoides. Neither creating an artificial genome nor transplanting a genome from one bacterium to another are world firsts – Venter’s team have done both before – but doing both at once is a breakthrough. In Venter’s words: ‘It’s the first self-replicating cell on the planet that’s parent is a computer.’
Hidden in its genetic folds are a web address, the names of the 46 scientists who worked on the project and a few choice quotations, all written in a secret code. There’s this from American Prometheus, a biography of Oppenheimer:
See things not as they are, but as they might be.
From Richard Feynman:
What I cannot build, I cannot understand.
And from James Joyce, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.
As Charlie Brooker put it, Venter has created ‘the world’s most pretentious bacterium. After Quentin Letts.’
Venter’s team aren’t the first geneticists to have a thing for modernist literature. When Crick and Watson published their findings on the structure of DNA in 1953 they concluded with a quotation from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
But the traffic between the two cultures hasn’t all been one-way. Joycean scholarship has been at the vanguard of the practice of ‘genetic criticism’ for years. Like Richard Dawkins’s theory of memes, genetic criticism involves the metaphorical application of the principles of genetics to bibliography, in which particular attention is paid to the process of composition, to the ‘genetic’ variance which occurs between different versions of the same work. Hans Walter Gabler’s monumental edition of Ulysses, which used a complicated system of symbols to record all the variants or mutations introduced into the novel through sloppy publishing and authorial revision, is the most well known example of this approach. It’s an easier read than the human genome (handily printed out and bound in 200 or so volumes for browsing in at the Wellcome Institute) but only just. Perhaps Venter’s next project should be to create a truly genetic edition of Ulysses, written into a cell and released into the wild, to go on its way infecting goats or calmly multiplying in a Petri dish until it mutates into something else.