Bio-artist Joe Davis plans to place 50,000 of the most popular Wikipedia pages into the DNA of apple trees to create a genetically modified Tree of Knowledge. Called Malus ecclesia, the project is part of Davis’ art residency at the genetics lab run by George Church at Harvard Medical School.
To begin the project, Davis searched for the oldest apple strain he could find, eventually receiving rootstock and leaves from a 4,000-year-old variety. This was important to more closely connect the project with the Judeo-Christian stories of the Tree of Knowledge and Forbidden Fruit.
With assistance from researchers and mathematicians, Davis developed a method for inserting information into DNA in coded form. DNA sequencing is represented by four letters that correspond to its chemical bases: A, G, C and T. Using a method likened to Morse code or shorthand, the Wikipedia text will be translated into the AGCT-code. The code will then be ‘built’ using combinations of the four chemical bases to become biologically viable. Each DNA molecule has redundant codons and Davis will insert the coded material under these in a way that will not change any of the apple’s existing characteristics of taste, shape, texture or vitality. The code will then be transported into the apple DNA by bacteria developed to insert its own genome through the walls of plant cells.
Due to the size of the bacterial genome, there is only enough room to add the equivalent of a few thousand words into each bacterium. Separate code-loaded bacteria will therefore be inserted into multiple apple saplings, which will then be grafted onto rootstock. As a result, one tree will have many branches, each encoded with different pages from Wikipedia. Davis is envisioning a grove of encoded trees at the end of the project. In a final irony, though, the the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture forbids the unregulated consumption of genetically modified fruit. Davis himself also sheepishly refuses to answer the question of whether he would try the end product.
Photos by Beverley Mitchell, and Rubra/Ars Electronica via Flickr