A few months ago, I wrote that you could identify genetically engineered life forms by checking their introns.  Introns are segments of DNA that do not code for a protein, and for the most part the arrangement of nucleotides is random.  I theorized that artificial introns might reveal themselves if they follow unnatural, non-random patterns.

An article in August’s Scientific American does not confirm my idea, but it does support it.  Researchers in my home state of Maryland replaced the natural genome of some bacteria with a synthetic version.  The bacteria are still alive, and they’ll never know anything’s different.  This is not a 100% genetically engineered organism, but it is a major step forward.

In order to avoid any confusion between the bacteria with natural DNA and those with the new kind, “watermarks” were added to the artificial DNA.  I don’t know if these watermarks are hidden in introns or somewhere else, but that’s not the important thing right now.  What’s important is that the watermarks include quotes from James Joyce, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Richard Feynmann.  These are marks of deliberate human design.

I’m not sure how you’d write a quote using only four letters­—I guess they’re in code—but this does show that genetically engineered life can be identified by artificial patterns in its genes.  Genetic engineers of the future may even use this technique to sign their work, like artists signing their paintings.

I’m excited about the possible plot points this creates.  I’m tempted to create a geneticist who loves poetry, or maybe genetically engineered spies who carry messages in their genes.  If Mary Shelley were writing today, perhaps Dr. Frankenstein would have put some little note into the DNA of his monster.  This is a great example of how real science can offer good ideas for stories.


Biello, David and Katherine Harman.  “The Tools for Life.”  Scientific American August 2010.  Pages 17-18.

Read the original post on Planet Pailly: “Aberrant Introns.”

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