Imagine a future where the amount of data on tyhe Web could be saved to a thumb drive. A storage medium already exists that can hold this amount of information. It's call DNA.
DNA typically stores biological information in cells that direct structures like proteins do their jobs. But scientists are investigating ways to get DNA to store other kinds of information. This week Harvard researchers reported in the journal Science that they encoded an entire book into DNA. Not only that, they read back the text.
The experiment hints towards future data-storage devices with capacities that eclipse the computer chips and hard drives used today.
"A device the size of your thumb could store as much information as the whole Internet," Harvard University molecular geneticist George Church, the project's senior researcher, told the Wall Street Journal.
Though I was hoping for a more literary selection, the team's DNA translation was Church's text on genomic engineering, "Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves." On second thought, that does sound like it has literary potential.
How'd they do it? Well, it all boils down to letters and numbers.
If you remember back to your middle school biology class, DNA is composed of two coiled strands consisting of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T).
Using the zeros-and-ones of computer language, the Harvard team began with the digital version of the book. On paper, they translated the zeros into the A or C of the DNA base pair. Likewise, they translated the ones into the G or T.
Then they created actual DNA — nearly 55,000 short strands that all included the new coded sequence that contained portions of the text.
In this viscous-liquid or solid-salt form, researchers said that a billion copies of the book could easily fit into a test tube and that they could last for centuries, provided with the right conditions.
"It shows that the vast increase in capacity to synthesize and sequence DNA can be applied to store significant amounts of data," said synthetic biologist Drew Endy at Stanford University, who wasn't involved in the project. "If you wanted to have your library encoded in DNA, you could probably do that now."
Having just moved halfway across the country, schlepping the burden of my bloated book collection, this doesn't sound like a bad idea. Especially now that I've traded in a sprawling home in the country for a small, city apartment.
Credit: E.M. Pasieka/Science Photo Library/Corbis