A poetic double helix

Innovative poem by University of Leicester academics reflects complex structure of DNA.

A collaboration between a poet and a biologist at the University of Leicester has resulted in a unique poem which will be heard on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 25 February.

Sue Dymoke, Reader in Education in the University’s School of Education, is a published poet. Pietro Roversi, who also writes poetry, is a researcher in the Leicester Institute of Structural and Chemical Biology. Between them they created the structurally complex poem DNA Time which was published late last year in the academic journal Writing in Education.

The poem’s format reflects the double helix structure of DNA which is composed of four nucleotides: Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Cytosine (C) and Guanine (G). These are always paired: A opposite T, and C opposite G.

Sue wrote the first half or strand of the poem, using only words which contained one of the four key letters. Pietro then developed a counter-poem, using words which contained the appropriate opposite letter. On the page, the two halves of the poem are printed at 180 degrees rotation so that the first line of Pietro’s text is opposite the last line of Sue’s.

Adding a small enigmistic twist to the double helix, the DNA bases corresponding to Sue's ‘coding strand’ poem would - if made into a real DNA molecule - and fed to a ribosome - produce a short protein, whose aminoacidic sequence in turn would read as a short English poem, also originally written by Sue.

The two colleagues worked together on the poem over several months, adjusting the text to improve the poetical aspects while remaining within their self-imposed genetically inspired constrictions.

Sue said: “Writing this poem with Pietro was an immensely challenging and creative collaborative process which not only deepened my understanding of DNA structures but also confirmed a long-held belief that poetry can lead writers, readers and listeners to think in new ways.”

Pietro added: “Working with Sue on this project has been a real pleasure for me. The experiment has been fun and it has sharpened my taste for engaging in creating activities with non-biologists. I am looking forward to the BBC Radio 4 broadcast, hoping that they may have reversed my reading of my non-coding strand, making it both unintelligible and truly complementary to Sue's.”

Listeners will have a chance to hear the full poem on Recombinant Rhymes and DNA Art , broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 4pm on Monday 25 February, and afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

Sue Dymoke’s latest collection, What They Left Behind, is now available from Shoestring Press. Pietro Roversi has recently been awarded a Wellcome Trust Seed Award in Science. Sue and Pietro are currently planning further interdisciplinary collaborations. They have recently secured funding from the Wellcome Trust ISSF Public Engagement fund to develop creative approaches for enhancing public understanding of protein structures.