Saturday, 10 May 2008

Only a few sentences in life are worth hearing -

‘Initial sequencing and analysis of the human genome - The human genome holds an extraordinary trove of information about human development, physiology, medicine and evolution. Here we report the results of an international collaboration to produce and make freely available a draft sequence of the human genome. We also present an initial analysis of the data, describing some of the insights that can be gleaned from the sequence…The sequence data have been made available without restriction and updated daily throughout the project. The task ahead is to produce a finished sequence, by closing all gaps and resolving all ambiguities. Already about one billion bases are in final form and the task of bringing the vast majority of the sequence to this standard is now straightforward and should proceed rapidly…The sequence of the human genome is of interest in several respects. It is the largest genome to be extensively sequenced so far, being 25 times as large as any previously sequenced genome and eight times as large as the sum of all such genomes. It is the first vertebrate genome to be extensively sequenced. And, uniquely, it is the genome of our own species. Much work remains to be done to produce a complete finished sequence, but the vast trove of information that has become available through this collaborative effort allows a global perspective on the human genome…We find it humbling to gaze upon the human sequence now coming into focus. In principle, the string of genetic bits holds long-sought secrets of human development, physiology and medicine. In practice, our ability to transform such information into understanding remains woefully inadequate. This paper simply records some initial observations and attempts to frame issues for future study.’ International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, Nature, 2001

Only a few sentences in life are worth hearing -

Only a few sentences in life are worth hearing -
for the rest you could well be deaf as a flower.

Words of love, comfort, compassion;
wonder, wisdom, counsel, healing -

all the rest dissolving into dull oral mud,
smalltalk history sludge - chitter-chatter;

like living near the sea,
this soundtrack, looping -

hairstyles/TV/film/school/cars -

playing from our own mouths,
fleshy ventriloquist dummies,

when your eyes are speaking different
stories – darkness, passion, love, need;

my heart hears but says nothing - fear,
manners, gagging; binding shy hands.

So media trumpets come brassly blazing,
like the annual uprising of first daffodils -

brash, blasting suddenly over the hill,
all fierce Sunday bonnets, so dazzling;

we hear briefly the annunciation -
revelation of the Human Genome;

shivering, enormous implications,
intimation of galactic enormity -

and the ethereal luminosity,
as moonshine in your hand;

the poetry of it
under the noise.

Friday, 9 May 2008

What hymn, what poem

‘For the world's biological scientists, Monday was G-Day - the announcement of the first draft of the human genetic code. Many began their careers believing this achievement was an impossible dream. But as the UK's top genome scientists emerged blinking from their laboratories into the glare of the first press conference in London, they could proudly announce that nearly all the code had been cracked… Photographers prowled and reporters howled, but though the researchers were shorn of their lab coats they were armoured with news of a changed world…All the back-slapping gave the atmosphere of an awards ceremony. The Wellcome Trust was thanked for bankrolling the UK's contribution. The men and women of the Sanger Centre were praised for their work, which was carried out "not for great financial gain or scientific kudos" but for public benefit. The engineers who built the equipment were lauded as the "great unsung heroes".’ Dr Damian Carrington, BBC News Online

‘The US president and the UK prime minister have hailed the rough draft of the entire human genetic code as "the most wondrous map ever produced by human kind". Their words followed news conferences around the world on Monday at which scientists jointly announced that they had obtained a near-complete set of the biochemical instructions for human life. The achievement is being called one of the most significant scientific landmarks of all time, comparable with the invention of the wheel or the splitting of the atom. The genetic information will revolutionise medicine over the coming decades, giving us new tests and drugs for previously untreatable diseases. Some fear it could also lead to the emergence of a genetic underclass - people who have inherited faulty code…To decipher the first draft, scientists had to read the three billion chemical "letters" strung out along the DNA spirals at the heart of nearly all our cells... Efforts would continue to fill in the gaps, they said, with a fully finished genome available within three years…President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair linked up via satellite to salute the work of the scientists. They said society had a duty to use the new information responsibly and for the benefit of all humankind.’ BBC Science

What hymn, what poem

What hymn, what poem
to tell of such things -

when words it seems
cannot cup, contain

this concept, shining idea -
largeness, smallness in one,

catching the rain in a silver soupspoon -
like that simple little poem of Relativity

everyone can memorise -
seeing the train, the clock,

fuzzy hair, (weirdly, Marilyn Monroe) -
is the skeleton of an enormous creature,

massive idea - with space, zillions of stars -
time and matter, spread across the Universe;

is only the boiled bones, bled for preservation,
comprehension - even its name carrying softer

flesh - ‘Theory of Relativity’ -
word garment of easier beauty.

But still austerity sharply shines -
the inexplicable power of symbol;

as these bright letters of the Human Genome,
revealed, are mightier than the recipe for stars.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Human Genome - Annunciation (2)

Through language’s mental labyrinth,
hunting poetry, super-natural words -

even her limping, clanging, sugary,
shuffling kin, will do – try, at least.

Truffling metaphor - rusty tongues
forcing creaking similes; bulging,

dusty words dug from untilled hearts -
mining a foreign vocabulary lurking

at the communal roots of trained, pared,
buzzing brains - now re-programming -

re-wiring for analogy, wonder, beauty -
pilfering dictionary, religion, Thesaurus,

speechwriter’s tools, movie trailers…
to really nail it; spell pictures, stories,

explanatory images - comprehension
for the mutual canvas of human mind,

for noble ignoramuses, the alien brothers
munching crisps on sofas, open-mouthed.

Scientists, Presidents, Prime Ministers -
Journalists groping for poetry’s ruthless

skeleton, her iron and silver,
musical soul; luxurious halo –

beauty, hung like morning breath
over a lake in England. Searching

for words that shine enough to tell of this;
say, mean, explain, carry enough weight -

here is the Word of Life,
natural poem of creation;

verse of mankind, read -
sublime art of chemistry.

Here is the magic binding Earth,
and all that lives – grape to man,

lemur, snail, seed -
flowers and fingers;

so, yes, let’s hear that resonating diction,
holy grammar - rare, special inflection -

I say unto you, they are groping
for God under robe and beard -

for the God Genome
which created Christ -

under centuries made in man’s image.
God hated by science - God of Blood

and Spirit both; a blurred, unanalysable thorn
in the grown-ungiving crystal heart of science.

Because nothing else fits this concept;
revelation, truth - realisation, insight -

but holy words, their old gold beaten,
recyled, gleaming, into a cup refined -

because it’s clear, even an aetheist,
in extremis, sometimes needs God.

‘THE GENOME IS IN. Except for a few jots, tittles and i's yet to be dotted, all of the basic links in the chain of DNA that spells out humanity's genetic endowment are now known, ready to be studied in exquisite detail, scientists announced yesterday. The achievement - a true milestone in science - was announced at a White House news conference by President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair - via satellite hookup - and scientists who led the international gene-finding venture… Clinton stated: “Today we are learning the language in which God created life.” And yesterday they celebrated, telling the world they had achieved their goal-and then some... As scientists scramble to unravel every last bit of information in the human genes, what they're digging into is, in fact, the common denominator of everyone. ..Collins recently urged hundreds of researchers at a major genome meeting to help people understand what is going on, and where genome research is leading. He said his fellow scientists need to open up and communicate publicly about their work in the pursuit of genes….he said scientists need to emerge from their laboratories and share their genetic wisdom, to be ambassadors for their science. Helping people understand the genome would also take about 19 years if one tried to read out every bit of chemical information stored therein. But that's exactly what scientists are now doing - reading this encyclopedia of life - in a big hurry.’ Robert Cooke, Newsday

Seeing the means of our own creation -
written on screen, just four little letters;

A, C, G, T - such uncluttered magic,
stark alchemy, fantastic simplicity -

beauty under android skin,
in the true soul of Science,

shows poetry’s flexible nature, the plastic
character of art - exploratory heart, better

able to elasticise such explanation;
expand facts to meaning, describe.

‘We are seeing the handwriting of God’ -
they say, struggling for a better metaphor

to spear, skewer us a moment on our sofas,
like those butterflies caught flying in boxes;

harpoon us from everyday seas -
oncoming, small smashing waves.

Our ears so long deaf to alien Science,
left behind with leather satchel smell -

Mercury like fallen angel tears,
blood of a star, soul of Silver -

crucible, Potassium, Lithium -
crystal, salt, element, litmus…

even then poetry could not be denied to Science;
invasion, nature as permeating light, everywhere.

They know they must tell us, as apostles,
sages informing fellow citizens of Earth;

Wise Men, leaders. Those few who understand
must bear witness, explain and communicate -

not as burden, onerous duty, but in celebration,
wonder - good news of our beauty, miraculous

nature – we are books, letters that have been read -
universal as a poem, particular as a fingerprint, eye.

More poem than machine, brute flesh factory -
that thinking, selfish, impoverished machine

constructed by a limiting mind, excluding
uncomfortable concepts of consciousness;

burning soul like a dispensible phosphorous flare –
not for illumination, but ashes, diminuition; denial

of phoenix principle - altruism, love – so consigned
with unicorns, griffons, mermaids, dragons, centaurs,

magic; fairies as pollution, bluebottles, flies -
angels cast as albatrosses, vampires, vultures.

We dream of wings because the Human Genome
is an angel whose virtual wings are now clipped -

her sleeping genes are not unwritten;
furled, inform body, thought, legend.

We love flowers, country, each other,
because the Genome is brother, sister,

parent and child, to everything that lives -
astounding, ancient, perpetual Earth child;

genetic horde, prize, gallery and art.
How will they properly say it then -

but with the whiff of glory, rumble
of scriptural thunder; Psalm, poem -

without the skins of beauty, her shine,
resurrected mists of mystery shifting.

Without being open-mouthed - sloshing
star-colour wonder; brushing information,

sequencing software/hardware, wildly
difficult chemistry, complex processes -

hearing best of all, that silver triangle sound
rung at truth’s simple heart - her parables -

so much room in the concept, metaphor,
reality of the deciphered, holy Genome,

to house everything so comfortably within -
visions men had wrongly turned to enemies,

friction, opposition - so many finding -
bizarrely, the best science needs poetry.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Human Genome - Annunciation (1)

‘The Human Genome is the ‘Holy Grail’ of biology.’ Washington Post

‘I would say the Human Genome Project is probably more significant than splitting the atom or going to the moon. That sounds really audacious, doesn't it? But I think history, when we look back in a hundred years, will agree with that conclusion. This is an adventure into ourselves, to read our own blueprint, the consequences of that, for our ability to understand health and disease, and a whole variety of other issues that relate to humanity are profound, so I don't think it's grandiose or overstated to claim this is the most significant organized scientific effort that humankind has ever mounted, bar none.’ Francis Collins, Head of US Human Genome Project, CNN, US

Human Genome – Annunciation (1)

There are trumpets in today’s loud sunshine,
daffodils prooting annunciation of spring -

bright yellow voices chattering, giggling
in fingery wind, squeakily stiff on parade,

herald duties; funsters attempting seriousness.
Big news to Earth’s creatures is coming – but

this time beyond seasonal warming of soil
molecules, limbering roots, imploded seed

DNA. They are more than first sparks, bright-
minted yellow rusting, rustling into summer –

listen - whispering, nervous joy - like excited children
in the wings before a play, exuberance only just bound

by green wires tying yellow floral ribbons to the earth,
because knowledge has returned - so ancient, language

is being dragged semi-comatose from poetry, religion,
history; everywhere half-buried that has skills enough,

resonance for appropriate capture, means of expression.
They are aghast, open-mouthed at blue opening above -

that great sky maw voicing one articulate blue thought,
mightily simple, yet magnificent - written among stars;

self-dazzling, grinning, just rubbing cheek to cheek -
dainty air-kissing like posh Englishwomen at parties

you want to grab, plant a smacker, proper kiss
on pursed lips, grasping limpfish fingers firmly,

smudging lipstick for a shower of honest pollen -
like gold DNA daffodil-dust from sweet tongues.

It’s a rollicking song - the song of daffodils bursting
jauntily from flagpole green; a tuned choir of season,

temperature, youthful light, warm rainwater opening
soprano mouths - always a dramatic announcement -

they understand symbolism’s urgency, evolved message,
ruthless beauty - each frill is an elaboration of centuries.

How many millennia practising, beginning as gold
embers cooling from the first high fires of creation;

this knowledge was written also in the hearts of daffodils -
flowers wrapped deep and careful in tissued brown globes,

in darkness between original stars; light smelted into earth,
charged in dark, bulb hearts, switches tripped every spring –

organic bottled light that would one day illuminate blue;
yellow herald mouths today gossiping and proclaiming.

‘But it was Dr Mike Stratton, Head of the Cancer Genome Project at the Sanger Centre, the UK's main sequencing centre, who said the big prize, the human genetic blueprint, was being given to the public. "Today is the day that we hand over the gift of the human genome to the public. It is very fragile and beautiful and a powerful force for great good or evil," he said. The responsibility for its use was also being handed over to society, said Dr Stratton. Dr John Sulston, leader of the UK's contribution to the Human Genome Project, agreed, adding: "I'm confident that if we can explain this well, so that it becomes part of the democratic process, we will have no problems”.’ Dr Damian Carrington, BBC News Online

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

DNA Trails

‘Aristotle said the the ‘concept’ of a chicken is implicit in an egg, or that an acorn was literally ‘informed’ by the plan of an oak tree. When Aristotle’s dim perception of information theory, buried under generations of chemistry and physics, re-emerged amid the discoveries of modern genetics, Max Delbruck joked the Greek sage should be given a posthumous Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘It is raining DNA outside. On the bank of the Oxford Canal at the bottom of my garden is a large willow tree, and it is pumping downy seeds into the air…The whole performance, cotton wool, catkins, tree and all, is in aid of one thing and one thing only, the spreading of DNA around the countryside…Not just any DNA, but DNA whose coded charcters spell out specific instructions for building willow trees that will shed a new generation of downy seeds. Those fluffy specks are, literally, spreading instructions for making themselves…It is raining instructions out there; it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy disks. It is plain and it is true, but it hasn’t long been understood.’ Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1986

DNA Trails

Sunlight sparkles my own galaxy -
bustling imprinted dust halo; orbiting,

oscillating skin, nail, hair and blood.
Snakely coiled in each shedding cell,

miles of shining instruction;
silver strings, dewed web -

for all of me - my future;
my means and materials,

personal evolved chemistry,
written, knowing everything -

each particle of this dust could re-build me,
like a life raft, escape pod, flying earth, sky;

sent back into space without a compass -
each shed molecule a miracle overlooked.

And I think of my lifetime trail of dust DNA,
abroad on untold journeys through the world -

every day called ordinary, moulting secrets
of my being; into streets, homes, mountains,

restaurants - seas, rivers, supermarkets, moors;
my very essence shed like wild dandelion seed,

affecting Earth, possibility, the march of things
in ways we cannot know, or guess, comprehend,

though could be known, gifted omniscience;
winds spreading my germ even among stars,

wandering the lifeless moons, volatile, hostile
planets; cold galaxies looking for a new home.

And what reading do we do; inhaling,
breathing other people’s DNA, deep

in historic twin nose, lung, ancient brain,
heart - deciphering in three nanoseconds

four billion years of a slightly amended
story. On this difference does our liking

hinge, smaller than the angel-crowded
heads of pins, invisible to naked eyes -

dislike, repulsion, hatred; or just some yuk,
unease, discomfort, hanging round a man -

as dark halo - printed DNA we read as spiritual
and physical cloud - even as prickling darkness,

threat - black and yellow mental stripes -
danger, like poisonous frog, wasp, snake.

Or silver script; the grown immortal lines,
good poetry of a fine person - golden bee

clouds humming round their head, in air;
their winged cells, physical seed, shines.

Speed-reading; instinct and art, practise -
unconsciously judging products of Earth

for friendship, pity, tenderness, interest,
laughter; occasionally, love, advantage,

chemical compatability - chromosomal
dance-partnering, genetic story-binding -

instantaneous synthesised flash illuminating,
praying our own dust be so favourably read.

‘There is enough information capacity in a single human cell to store the Encyclopaedia Britannica, all 30 volumes of it, three or four times over. There is enough storage capacity in the DNA of a single lily seed or a single salamander sperm to store the Encylopaedia Britannica 60 times over. Some species of the unjustly called ‘primitive amoebas’ have as much information in their DNA as 1,000 Encyclopaedia Britannicas.’ Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, Longman Scientific and Technical, 1986

In the strange illuminations of night, I saw
one of my particles dance from the room –

silver now, courtesy of Moon; Vasco da Gama,
Columbus cell, willing further, onward to mild

summer darkness, blurred milky-blue -
shining small star of me, word of me,

my own holy recipe contained, encrypted -
me in potentia; chemical dream, possibility.

I blew, flustering, sparkling my script;
when light floundered behind a cloud,

still it shone, its light not wholly physical,
of course, having my nature; how natural,

innate, understanding of these properties,
aspects, combinations - metaphorical and

scientific, symbolic, mystical and chemical;
our complex ease with mental and physical

existence, smooth interpretations, translation.
To what destination, my germ – possibilities;

canned knowledge of four billion years
of Evolution; what fragile hope resides -

seed-star, cell-pod, dust-root, fruit-speck;
yet there went the lily, tiger, flower, too –

O Generous Genome ark, enveloped letter;
in her latent wings, she folds all creatures

written since the first love of Chemistry
embraced two cells, began writing hearts

and eyes; her recipes all wonderful,
brutal in their deathly celebration -

she will coax life even from a stone -
nowhere may escape the breath of life,

operational even under water, on rock;
at extreme temperature, height, depth -

sail forth, small Ship of Man, journey -
to what end and place, story, her cargo;

to the near eye bright as foxy Venus -
with more life than the whole galaxy

in pregnant tenth-of-a-millimetre cells.
Organic promise; bottle, vessel, poem -

maybe she makes for poor dry Moon,
feverish planets - beautiful toxin, life-

germ; reaching a finger to her journey,
like snow, I shed more - always more,

more cells, by head-scratch, hand-rub,
undressing, sex; all these Me-galaxies,

carelessly strewn everywhere I’ve been,
all these places I have not, but am now -

most melting back to dust, as crushed atoms,
identity minced as glass-smeared molecules

of miraculous fly; to organic mess, devastation;
to be recycled - already I may be a green leaf -

the eye of an eagle, star-whisker of a mouse.
Each new use of life is the workings of light,

all possible bodies my scripted dust might build,
each one shines - as monument, love-reflection,

life-shrine, mother-organism - the fantastic result
of ongoing experimentation, creative composition.

DNA cannot help but be a poem; her nature is
a poem - her creatures, the reading in the dark.

‘Perhaps the last thing to say about the double helix is that fifty years of ubiquity has almost institutionalised the idea in popular culture that the double helix as design is new. It isn't. Scientists reveal the truths inherent in nature. So just as DNA itself wasn't 'discovered' - it's always been there - the double helix as a design construct has been around a long time. It was employed in the grand staircase of Chambord (begun 1519) designed (probably) by Leonardo da Vinci for François I. Leonardo's employment of the double helix was done for purposes of secrecy: those ascending one helix would never see those descending the parallel helix. More than 400 years before the discovery of DNA's structure, Leonardo's push-me-pull-you staircase - a design with inherent tension - mirrored the oppositional pull of DNA's parallel sugar spines. Charles and Ray Eames understood that good design should be based on a democracy of distribution. Beauty coupled with affordability. And their spirit of democracy mirrors that of the public human genome project that aims to make DNA an open source code. In nature as well as in man-made design, good designs succeed and poor designs eventually die off. So happy birthday DNA, and long live good DNA design.’ Denna Jones, Curator, TwoTen Gallery and Contemporary Initiatives, Wellcome Trust, 2003

‘The fundamantal laws of nature are part of the basic furniture of the world, and physical theories are telling us that this basic furniture is remarkably simple. If a theory of consciousness also involves fundamental principles, then we should expect the same.’ David Chalmers, Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness, 1995

Monday, 5 May 2008

My Dream of the Double Helix

‘Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner thought that the task of ‘cracking’ the genetic code would take generations but in truth they hit upon the basic principle almost immediately… What if each amino acid was coded by a three-base sequence? Then there are sixty-four possible variants – of four times four times four. They tried this, and found that lo!, what was logically the simplest solution is in fact what nature has chosen to do…’ Ian Wilmut, The Second Creation: The Age of Biological Control, by the scientists who cloned Dolly, Headline, 2001

‘Thus the general plan of living things seemed almost obvious. Each gene determines a particular protein.’ Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989

‘Have not all souls thought/ For many ages, that our bodies wrought/ Of air, and fire, and other elements?/ And now they think of new ingredients…’ John Donne, 1571/2-1631, An Anatomy of the World, The Second Anniversarie

‘One reason that many of us take DNA personally - more so than say, discoveries of superconductors, cold fusion or dark matter - is because it constitutes the enigmatic core around which much of our behaviour, desires, fears, as well as our health, revolve.’ BBC News, 2003

‘The whole process seemed so utterly mysterious that one hardly knew how to begin thinking about it.’ Francis Crick, Co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, What Mad Pursuit, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989

‘… in the last 50 years DNA has ended up in some pretty ropey design manifestations… most DNA designs are such literal depictions of the double helix that they reduce the sublime to the cliché. Aside from numerous DNA sculptures…how about a double helix tie or boxer shorts? Or a left-spiraling DNA bracelet? The hyperbole accompanying some of the more banal creations is often better than the object itself. A necktie with a giant silk-screened DNA molecule has the accompanying text: "Helix, schmelix, what I'd like to do is meet whatever has DNA this big. And it's replicating. Yikes!" A quick search on the internet reveals many design businesses that incorporate the word DNA in their company title. And those that use the double helix as part of the company logo quite frequently get their DNA in an awkward - and incorrect - twist. Like a corkscrew, DNA twists to the right. But sinister twisting DNA appears in the most predictable (i.e. non-scientific) places as well as the most unlikely (an edition of James Watson's book The Double Helix).’ Denna Jones, Curator, TwoTen Gallery and Contemporary Initiatives, Wellcome Trust, 2003

‘Francis Crick lived in this house in Cambridge, now marked by a golden helix.’ BBC Science online

‘Towards multidimensional genome annotation - Our information about the gene content of organisms continues to grow as more genomes are sequenced and gene products are characterized. Sequence-based annotation efforts have led to a list of cellular components, which can be thought of as a one-dimensional annotation. With growing information about component interactions, facilitated by the advancement of various high-throughput technologies, systemic, or two-dimensional, annotations can be generated. Knowledge about the physical arrangement of chromosomes will lead to a three-dimensional spatial annotation of the genome and a fourth dimension of annotation will arise from the study of changes in genome sequences that occur during adaptive evolution. Here we discuss all four levels of genome annotation, with specific emphasis on two-dimensional annotation methods.’ Abstract, Nature Reviews, Genetics 7, 2006


The Moon was a single silver word
written in the black mouth of night,

sky’s opening blue vowel -
pared beyond musical light

to her chalky white bone,
pocked, unbeating heart;

cold molecules and tarnished gas -
to her brilliant round skull, stone

skeleton that is the stark idea of her;
the shining milky-blue sky-cocoon

that is the socketed thought of her –
her poem is written as a single word.

But trees flutter embroidery of leaves -
sewn by a single thirsting skinny thread;

green eyes flagged, scribbling on open blue,
until yellow and orange, red syllables ignite -

in ragged poems aflame, whispering of death
and life subsumed by one season; snowflaking

down from kneeling evangelist branches -
showering earth with burning scarlet stars;

trunks bend, articulating the human torso,
limbs still morphed to earth in illustration,

their golden rings sounding another year,
resin crying arboreal tear interpretations.

Flowers took me in their thin green arms,
open almond palms - cheek to invisibly

veined petal cheek - reading sugared breath,
love poetry for bees; sweet floral dictionary

for translating summer light into shining nectar -
gold sundust of pollen; ultimately spelling honey.

I touched their plugged green necks -
and through my open pink star palms,

the low sound of humming earth wired,
that is like a beatless, deep, slow heart.

And my own heart was like a morning rose,
opening from my chest on muscular hinges,

responsive to light, shifting moods, sundial
creeps of brilliance and shadow - raised up,

the leaves of my hands showed the skeleton
of a star - a Milky Way at every finger tip –

and now I saw, also sketches of paw and claw,
incipient fur under shorn skin, bonded hoof -

recognising the vertebrate and non-vertebrate
white bone and black exoskeleton, water-bone

of mother-of-pearl shell; my spine itching
with a tail, my shoulder blade nubs aching -

I was a bundle of prints - animal and plant
ghosts; loose, shifting, but all rooted to me,

trailing shapes like a Gothic bride; a veil
of bird and mammal chimeras, dim hopes

of a sea urchin for eyes - one day seeing in me;
my human shape was just a mannequin of stars.

And this rose of my heart became a red light -
clarifying like plasma from blood, scarlet cells;

for the sight of my black eyes reading the world -
seeking to the heart of words, beyond letter, active

symbol, to sound, space where notes silently carry
music; pulling back again to the moving life prints,

temporal place of poem skeletons, language of flesh -
before being blinds her scaffold, hangs it with animals

and flowers, four billion years of experimentation,
art of diversity. And the writing, continuous script,

was dancing - hearing that music in the darkness,
translated into spirals, fairground shapes; notation

culled from the birth of a universe, chemistry of life -
the whole world written in twisting silver spirals, still

writing – in attraction - loving, parting, replicating -
poems that are never still, connected to one another;

verses in one work, over and over, entitled Evolution;
for robin and man, leaf or worm, however elaborate,

whatever organic style, peacock or sparrow equal -
they spoke only a single communal word: Creation.

Sunday, 4 May 2008



“We’ve discovered the secret of life.” Francis Crick, Co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, in local pub, UK, 1953

‘Moreover, the insight that the discovery [of the structure of DNA] provided into how human characteristics arise from our individual genes created a veritable super-highway of research, ushering in gene therapy for inherited diseases and culminating in the recent sequencing of the human genome.’ Adrian Hayday, Professor of Immunobiology, King's College London, UK, 2003
‘DNA is, in every sense, a modern icon. For decades, it has enthralled scientists striving to understand its molecular meaning, provided an aesthetic template for artists, and challenged society with all sorts of ethical conundrums. The defining moment for DNA was the discovery of its structure. Published in the science journal Nature 50 years ago this month, James Watson and Francis Crick described how two strands of DNA embrace to form a double helix, and sparked a scientific revolution. To convince the skeptics that DNA truly was the material of inheritance - the so-called "stuff of life" - it was necessary to show how it could be copied and passed on from one generation to the next. Watson and Crick's model immediately hinted as to how DNA might be copied - each strand of the helix could act as a template to replicate the other.’ Carina Dennis, Nature, from BBC Science, 2003

‘All warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities…and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering those improvement by generation to its posterity, world without end!’ Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia; or, the Laws of Organic Life, 1, 1794-6

‘DNA – the most interesting molecule in all nature.’ James Watson, Co-discoverer of the structure of DNA

The only media report of the discovery of DNA, the secret of life – in 1953, the same year as Everest was climbed, and Queen Elizabeth 2nd was crowned - was in one newspaper, the News Chronicle.

WEE DNA STORY - ‘A remarkably short scientific paper, known officially as a letter, was published on 25 April 1953 in Nature, by James Watson and Francis Crick. It was perhaps the most momentous paper of the modern era, proposing a structure for the chemical, DNA (Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid), which composes the hereditary material of all living cellular organisms. The proposed structure - a double helix - rapidly became an icon, aesthetically beautiful, and stunning in its capacity to explain how DNA is replicated in order to transmit the genetic material to the next generation…Watson and Crick's paper was published without their undertaking a single experiment. Instead, the experiments underpinning their albeit inspired models were undertaken over the previous three years in the Strand basement laboratories of the Medical Research Council Biophysics Unit at King's. The prime movers in obtaining the data at King's were Professor Maurice Wilkins, who had commenced pilot studies on the use of X-rays to analyse DNA structure, and Dr Rosalind Franklin, a Fellow who arrived at King's in January 1951, and who advanced the X-ray resolution of DNA structure to a new level of clarity and sophistication. Their data were published alongside the Watson and Crick paper but because neither provided a compelling model for DNA structure, they have often been overlooked. In 1962 Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick but Franklin had tragically died a few years earlier at the age of 37.’ Adrian Hayday, Professor of Immunobiology, King's College London, UK, 2003

‘All living things reproduce; reproduction, or ‘replication’, is one of the distinguishing features of life. The easiest way to reproduce is simply to divide. This is the way DNA replicates itself…The conceptual problems is – or was – that any one body produces many thousands of different proteins, which do hundreds of thousands of different things, but DNA itself seems chemically simple. In fact a DNA molecule has only three basic componenets: a sugar called deoxyribose; a number of phosphorus-containing groups called ‘phosphate radicals’; and a set of four ‘bases’ or ‘nucleotides’ known as adenine (A), cytosine (C), thymine (T), and guanine (G). These four bases provide the only source of variation in the DNA molecule. No wonder biologists thought it was boring, and could not possibly be the stuff of genes. How could such simplicity generate such complexity, and with such precision? But, as always, nature is way ahead of us… the order in which the four bases occure in the DNA molecule provides a ‘code’ that is in principle rich enough to specify all the proteins that any living thing could ever require: an infinity of possibilities.’ Ian Wilmut, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

‘This is now the bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh..’ Genesis, 2, The Bible

‘For many years, people who studied genetics thought that DNA wasn't complex enough to contain all of the information needed to make up a genome. DNA acts as the code, but how does it do it?...The function of DNA depends to a large extent on its structure. The discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick is one of the most famous scientific discoveries of all time. The two scientists used evidence collected by other scientists, particularly that of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, to deduce the shape of DNA. One of the most important pieces of evidence came from Franklin's experiments of shining X-rays though the DNA molecule and using photographic film to record where the scattered X-rays fall. The shadows on the film can be used to work out where the dense molecules lie. This technique is known as X-ray crystallography….Working out the arrangement of bases in the DNA helix was made easier by 'Chargaff's rules'…Erwin Chargaff was a Czech-American scientist who had noticed that within every DNA molecule, the number of A bases was always the same as the number of T bases, and that the number of C bases was always the same as the number of G bases.’

‘These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew…’ Genesis 2, The Bible

‘..a vital propery of a gene was that it could be copied exactly for generation after generation, with only occasional mistakes. What we were trying to guess was the general nature of this copying mechanism… of course now that we know the answer, it all seems so completely obvious that no-one nowadays remembers just how puzzling the problem seemed then.’ Francis Crick, Co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, What Mad Pursuit, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989

‘In principle the duplication of DNA is straighforward, yet in execution it is miraculous, although it happens millions of times each second, in each of us.’ Ian Wilmut, scientist


DNA – or, deoxyribonucleic acid -
a mouthful which should be a poem;

adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine,
which should be the names of angels -

creative bond of adenine with thymine,
cystosine with guanine; A toT, C to G,

which is love,
as chemistry.

Who is this poet who can write the flower,
burning-ember leopard, in just four letters

clustered into threes; spell lily skin
and spotted fur, peacock tail, scale.

1.8 metres of DNA in each of our cells,
sparkling spiral strings, silver threads -

wound into structures less than a tenth
of a millimetre across, leaving plenty

of room on the head of a pin for angels,
invisibly clustering the space of a seed;

reaching to the Sun and back 600 times,
bundled into 23 chromosomes, paired –

three billion letters planted with genes,
nuggets of DNA, in encrypted verses –

chemical factories with magic and dancing
at the heart - realised script called to life -

creating proteins - amino acids -
which are the shared spoken word

of skin and wing - peacock and goat;
expression, mechanism of holy code

which has written itself out of nothing,
the original miracle found among stars.

Writing deducted, life deduced,
from the blindness of existence;

evidence and imagination beyond bone,
molecules of bone, to the dream of bone -

Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin’s
X-ray crystallography, which sounds

like it looks for the heart of rubies -
bone of closed stone, bright skeleton

of a diamond (which might resemble
that of a star, starfish or dandelion) -

shining X-rays through the DNA molecule,
catching the scattered pattern, recording as

a ghosthunter’s camera, authored shadows
on the film, showing the dense molecules -

James Watson and Francis Crick dreaming
the Double Helix, orderly flux; the dancing

spiral, alive with love and creativity -
artist’s shape that is neither life nor

chemistry - idea or dream - but all,
synthesised for imagining, pictured

for understanding, practicality -
as e=mc2 is expression, stripped

poem of energy and mass; so a ladder,
elegant and twisting - with something

of a swan’s neck; backboned poles
of alternating sugar and phosphate

groups – attached bases forming rungs
at each waisted twist, loyal partnering

of bases informed by 'Chargaff's rules’ -
Erwin Chargaff, the Czech-American

who noticed that within every DNA molecule,
the number of A bases was always the same

as the number of T; the number of C bases
was always the same as the number of G -

so Watson and Crick suggested each 'rung'
was composed of a pair of bases, joined by

hydrogen bonds, shackles - A always forming
bonds with T; C always forming bonds with G.

“We’ve discovered the secret of life,” shouted Francis
in the local pub - 1953, when the Moon was still aloof,

blue writing of Earth on the black space page unread -
and the Human Genome lay sparkling like the golden

Pharaoh undisturbed. Pattern and concept, sequence,
mechanism – art and beauty of the Double Helix not

a luxury, lucky add-on, but integral, essential, one,
as everything created by its spiral is a work of art –

creation; kinship residing at the heart of the idea,
making, creating - a holy mechanism, copying –

growing, multiplying; and will become the tiger,
leaf or twitching rabbit in the garden; eagle, fly,

or nomad snail – given four billion years, my child;
gene sequence, spun space, the place of the Word -

deoxyribonucleic acid, etching the words of a poem
with informative light and the blank spaces between -

writing on Earth’s wet page, the work of the blue planet;
sketches and drawings of creation, knitted on spiral pins.