DNA Stores MLK's Speech, Shakespeare's Sonnets

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Nick Goldman of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory examines synthesized DNA in a vial.
European Molecular Biology Laboratory

Next, they sent the genetic instruction to the biological lab Agilent Technologies in California. Agilent constructed pieced together DNA strands made of the bases, according to Goldman and Birney's instructions. Then, the lab shipped the scientists a tiny vial.

The vial contained a long string of DNA encoded with the sonnets, the speech, the photo and the research paper. To read the information, the scientists used a machine designed to analysis, or sequence, DNA molecules. One of the methods it used was similar to how ordinary computers pieces together a digital data that comes from disparate locations on a hard drive. Basically, it looks for tiny pieces of information at the end of each string, which flags where the piece fits in the larger string.

While this work is proof-of-concept, it doesn't mean that people will be seeing DNA-based backup drives on desktops soon. The biggest obstacle is encoding the information into the DNA itself. Making strands of DNA is expensive and time-consuming, and it's difficult to make longer strings of it. Reading the information, on the other hand, is considerably easier, and sequencing technology has become cheaper over the last decade.

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But it is still expensive: Goldman noted that commercial rates for synthesizing the DNA are between $10,000 and $20,000. Sequencing it is still in the thousands as well. Goldman noted that making DNA and sequencing it would have to be one percent the cost that it is now to make it practical in less than 50 years.

George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard who demonstrated a similar idea in August, told Discovery News that DNA could one day replace ordinary hard drives. "It's a million or a billion times denser and requires much less energy to run," he said. "You could have information storage as paint or wallpaper," he said.

Goldman noted that both his and Church's labs were working on the idea at the same time, without knowledge of each other.