A few months ago, I wrote an article about a group of scientists who stored a book that contained words, illustrations, and Java script on DNA. It was an amazing technical achievement, and it demonstrated the incredible storage capabilities of this marvelous biomolecule. Well, another team of scientists has gone even further: they stored words, pictures, and audio on DNA!
Yes, the team encoded all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a photograph of the European Bioinformatics Institute (where the scientists work), and a 26-second audio clip from Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.1 Also, in a very fitting symbolic gesture, they added the famous James Watson and Francis Crick paper that first revealed the structure of DNA.2
This new achievement was noteworthy for more than just the fact that the scientists stored audio on DNA. While the method that the previous team used to store the book worked well, it was difficult for instruments to retrieve the information from the DNA once it was stored there. Thus, the time it took to retrieve the book from DNA storage was fairly long. The scientists who produced this study used a different method to store the information, which made it much easier for instruments to read it back. As a result, not only was everything retrieved from DNA storage with 100% accuracy, the time it took to get it back was significantly reduced.
This is important, because if you really want to use DNA as a storage device for an enormous amount of information, you need to be able to read back that information quickly when you want to retrieve it. Of course, even the “simplest” single-celled organism can already read the information encoded in DNA with remarkable speed. Human science can’t come close to what these “simple” organisms can do, but this study does represent a small step in the right direction. As the authors state:
Theoretical analysis indicates that our DNA-based storage scheme could be scaled far beyond current global information volumes and offers a realistic technology for large-scale, long-term and infrequently accessed digital archiving.
Now, of course, the amount of data the scientists were able to store was impressive. It is equivalent to storing almost 500,000 CDs worth of information in a single gram of DNA. However, that’s only one of the advantages to using DNA as a way of storing information. The other is stability. Scientists are able to read DNA from fossils that are thousands of years old! If DNA can last that long in a fossil, it can last even longer in the pristine conditions of a data storage facility. This is why the authors say that their method can be used for long-term storage.
So DNA offers us a way to store an unparalleled amount of information for an amazingly long time. Of course, what else would you expect from an information storage system that was designed by God?
1. Nick Goldman, Paul Bertone, Siyuan Chen, Christophe Dessimoz, Emily M. LeProust, Botond Sipos, and Ewan Birney, “Towards practical, high-capacity, low-maintenance information storage in synthesized DNA,” Nature doi:10.1038/nature11875, 2013.
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2. Watson J.D. and Crick F.H.C, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” Nature 171:737-738, 1953.
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