Short note: This made some big headlines recently. Scientists have been able to encode digital information into DNA molecules. Here are four headlines that all report on the same paper from Science, but with a few different details each. They’re all great articles.
Headline from Science:
“DNA: The Ultimate Hard Drive”
Headline from io9:
“Soon you’ll be backing up your hard drive using DNA”
Headline from The Guardian:
“Book written in DNA code
Scientists who encoded the book say it could soon be cheaper to store information in DNA than in conventional digital devices”
Headline from Discover Magazine:
“Want to Get 70 Billion Copies of Your Book In Print? Print It In DNA”
DNA can store digital information. Your hard drive could someday be a DNA molecule.
One milligram of DNA could encode the complete text of every book in the Library of Congress, with plenty of room left over. A gram of the stuff can hold a billion gigabytes. I don’t even know what that’s called – a billion gigabytes – I guess it’s 950 petabytes (if that helps any).
A team led by George Church at Harvard Medical just encoded 5 MB – including illustrations – into a sequence of DNA.
“Wow,” one may say. “How did they do that? Did they take dog DNA and mix it with turtle DNA and then splice it and dice it and recombine it somehow?”
Not exactly. As a matter of fact, not at all.
Let’s break this down. Two technologies made this possible: 1) DNA synthesis, and 2) DNA sequencing.
1) DNA Synthesis – (my definition) – building DNA piece by piece from scratch. DNA has that twisted ladder shape, right? So imagine that I throw you a bunch of rungs and said, “Build a ladder.” That’s synthetic DNA (except with nucleobases instead of wooden rods). Trick is to make a ladder that won’t break my neck – that is, the pieces fit together, stay together, and remain stable.
Now imagine that the rungs I threw you each have a label on them – keep it simple: a “1” or a “2”. Then I said, “Two 1’s in a row is an ‘A’; a 1 followed by 2 is a ‘B’…” and so on. And the goal was to transcribe a book into ladder rungs – each and every letter of each and every word represented by the order of the rungs.
You’d have a damn long ladder, but it could certainly be done.
Researchers can do this now with DNA. (Here’s a longer science-y post I wrote about it)
2) DNA Sequencing – no biggie here – this is the ability to “read” DNA. You have a DNA strand and you want to know the order of the nucleobases (the rungs). This was a long and costly process, but the technology is getting better. It’s already reliable; it just needs to be cheaper and faster to make it mainstream.
So that’s basically what the researchers did – they used the four nucleobases of DNA (A, C, G, T) to code the letters of the words of the book, and then built their DNA ladder.
As soon as synthesis and sequencing become cheap, effective, and contained (like small tabletop units), then we could see a lot more of this.
I don’t know though – forget hard drives – code up the Library of Congress and inject it right into my brain. Bypass the middle-man.
The Fiction 1/2
Pick what you want to know. Encode it into DNA. Wrap it with a mutational algorithm, and stick the needle into your brain. The DNA will mutate your synaptic pathways and you’ll instantly be smarter.
Knowledge is all about pathways in the brain. These pathways form through experience – the more you do something, the stronger the synaptic pathways. Now we can hard-code these pathways.
Anyone want to take a trip to Mars and free the mutants?
The Fiction 2/2
Researchers have been transferring digital files into strands of DNA for decades now. But DNA is the blueprint of life, and recently researchers have begun to bring digital information to life.
In an advancement that’s sure to delight some and scare the $h!t out of others, researchers have added arms, legs, faces, ears, hearts, lungs, and everything else to make your browsing history a real-life pet.
The ultimate look and personality of your pet is directly related to the digital information in its DNA.
So be careful what you look at when no one’s watching.