March 25, 2011

"To live, to err": Bacteria's DNA misquotes Richard Fenyman, rips off James Joyce


Last year geneticist Craig Venter made news when, according to Forbes, he “announced that he and a team at his eponymous institute have created a genetic code synthetically and inserted it into a bacterium called Mycoplasma capricolum.” At SXSW this month (via Forbes), Venter described two literary faux pas committed by his team. To distinguish the computer-generated DNA they implanted two quotes into the genetic code:

“What I cannot build, I cannot understand.”

… a quote the lab attributed to Richard Feynman. They also encrypted the bacteria DNA with the line:

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

… from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. This prompted a cease-and-desist letter from the Joyce estate for using his words without permission. As for the Feynman quote, it proved to be inaccurate. The real quote, as seen in a photograph of Feynman’s blackboard, was “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”