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The nucleic acid DNA, which contains an organism’s genetic information, consists of a four-letter alphabet that has until recently been characterized as a read-only text. The development of a quick, inexpensive DNA targeting and manipulation technique called CRISPR, pronounced “crisper,” though, has changed DNA from this arhetorical, read-only data set, as it has been characterized in the rhetoric literature to date, to a fully rhetorical text—one that can be not only read but created, interpreted, copied, altered, and stored as well. The Book of Nature, an idea with roots in antiquity but popularized during the nineteenth century, provides proof of concept in the form of an historical and theoretical context in which DNA can be viewed in this light. Once ensconced in the Book of Nature, DNA can longer be considered a code; rather, it is a text. DNA text has structural components that are similar to those of traditional text, and now, with CRISPR, it also has purposes, audiences, and stakeholders. Given the enormous potential of DNA text for both good and ill, rhetoricians of science and medicine must participate in discussions of the complex literacy, policy, and ethics issues this new form of text brings about.


DNA, CRISPR, Rhetoric of Science, Book of Nature, Text, Genetics, Literacy, Language

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The impetus for this article was a presentation at the University of California–Davis Health System Symposium entitled “CRISPR Technology: Responsible Discourse About Science & Ethics” in May 2016. I am grateful to Sarah Tinker Perrault and Meaghan O’Keefe for the invitation to speak at this event. I was introduced to the Book of Nature through the work of Samantha Harvey of Boise State University, and I am indebted to her for a number of discussions in which she shared important insight on this trope. I thank my York College of Pennsylvania colleague Gabe Cutrufello for commenting on an early draft of the manuscript and for suggesting that I send it to POROI, and I am grateful to Cristina Hanganu-Bresch for helpful suggestions and an opportunity to speak on this topic at a meeting of the Philadelphia Writing Program Administrators. Finally, I thank the anonymous reviewer for her or his helpful recommendations; the manuscript is much stronger because of them.