Genomics, Cellomics and…Poetryomics?

Poems On the Underground is an annual project that has been a part of London life since the mid 1980s.  It is also one with which I have a personal connection—my father used to work for The British Council which cosponsors the project (1).  Every year a selection of poems authored by literary greats such as William Blake, William Wordsworth and Wendy Cope are carefully selected for publication on London Underground trains (1).  For many a rush-hour traveler, these short poetic nuggets will inevitably engage the mind perhaps temporarily drawing it away from the monotony of a working day.

The world of bioscience has recently latched onto a similar craving for all things poetic and creative writing-related.  Sponsored by UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), The Human Genre Project is the name chosen for a new initiative that aims to tap into the writing abilities of the public at large with a specific focus on genes and genomics (2,3).  The project is writer Ken McLeod’s brainchild, the inspiration behind which came from novelist Michael Swanwick’s own Periodic Table of Science Fiction– a collection of short stories that tie in to each of the elements of Dmitri Mendeleev’s historic Periodic Table of The Elements (2,4).

Perusing through the latest additions to The Human Genre Project, one cannot help but note that many deal with the pathos of life and the deeply personal and often times bleak nature of inherited disease (3).  Others such as Ted Kosmadka’s Limited Penetrance, Variable Expression touch on the ethical issues of modern day medicine.  Over time McLeod hopes that a continual stream of contributions will serve to build an educational resource that all can use for learning about the human genome (2).   “My goal for this” writes McLeod  “is that it fills up nicely, we get a fine diversity of short stories on it and it becomes something people can use as a resource [for information on genetics]…..Getting this [information] articulated in artistic ways is both educational and artistically has a lot of potential” (5).

Poetry in particular has over the years gained traction as a tool for conveying scientific concepts in a fun and accessible way (6).   In The Radioactive Dating Game, MIT chemist Mala Radhakrishnan tapped into her talent as a poet to humorously describe the comings and goings of radioactive decay (6).  Physicist Mike Finn exercised his own poetic tendencies to depict the earth-shattering achievements of Galileo in his poem Galileo Galilei (7) .  Inspirited by these champions of poetry I recently submitted my own The Hierarchical Life– a celebration of the processes of cellular differentiation and tissue specialization in biology- to the Human Genre Project.  Here is a foretaste of my piece:

The Hierarchical Life

If we look close at cell’s own schemes
specified function, integral teams.
Protein domains that play their role,
so specified to fit their goal.

It’s hard to think how bits mixed up
like random tea leaves in a cup
could make such schemes of grand design,
so tailor-made, so clocked, so fine.

And so the cells they specialize,
with jobs to do, new tissues rise,
cells work together unified,
communicate both far and wide.

Neuron- impulse forth it sends,
muscle then contracts, leg bends.
Lymphocyte- the fort defends,
liver cells the body cleanse.

Cells and tissues form a whole.
Each cell doth ‘know’ its place, its role.
The body made laboriously.
A stomach, heart, a mind that’s free.

From whence did come our thoughtful brain
that makes decisions, loss or gain?
Through inner soul it comes to life,
through stress and strain, through joy and strife.

Further Reading

  1. Poems On The Underground, http://www.britishcouncil.org/arts-literature-poems-on-the-underground.htm
  2. The Poetryome, http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55838/
  3. The Human Genre Project,  http://www.humangenreproject.com/index.php
  4. The Periodic Table Of Science Fiction,  http://scifi.kundor.org/periodictable.html
  5. For a review of The Human Genre Project see http://virginiahughes.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/28/human-genre-project/ 
  6. The Radioactive Dating Game, MIT chemist Mala Radhakrishnan,  http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2005/arttalk-0330.html
  7. Physics Professor Publishes Poems Celebrating ‘Joy of Life’, http://web.wm.edu/news/archive/index.php?id=2369
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    Robert Deyes

    Robert has been a Technical Services Scientist at Promega for over 10 years. He also worked for two years as a Technical Advisor at the Paisley, Scotland facility of Life Technologies Inc. After earning his Masters in Medical Genetics from the University of Glasgow, he spent 18 months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France where he did research into the molecular basis of the inherited disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He also holds a BSc from the University of Portsmouth in England.

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