From cave paintings to cloud computing, man has sought out increasingly complex ways to store data. Now researchers have found that nature’s own hard drive – DNA – can be synthesized to back up a world of knowledge in the information age.
On Wednesday researchers from the UK-based European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) published findings in the journal, Nature, describing how they had stored all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a digital photo of their lab, a PDF of the 1953 study that described the structure of DNA, and a 26-second sound clip from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in manufactured DNA.
“We already know that DNA is a robust way to store information because we can extract it from bones of woolly mammoths, which date back tens of thousands of years, and make sense of it,” says study co-author Nick Goldman of the EBI.
“It’s also incredibly small, dense and does not need any power for storage, so shipping and keeping it is easy,” he continued.
DNA is in fact such an effective means of storage that the researchers estimate that at least 100 million hours of high-definition video would fit in a cup of it.
“A gram of DNA would hold the same information as a bit over a million compact discs,” Goldman said. “Your storage options are: one thing a bit smaller than your little finger, or a million CDs.”
DNA is a long, coiled molecular “ladder” comprising four nucleobases – adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine – which are usually abbreviated as A, C, G and T. The various sequences of these four nucleobases are what encodes information in all known living organisms.
With the aid of a simple cipher, the scientists converted the ones and zeroes used in binary code into the four-letter alphabet of DNA code.
Goldman says their study stands apart because of the intrinsic measures that offset potential mistranslations.
Currently, technology only allows for the manufacture of DNA in short strings, and reading it is prone to error, as the same DNA letters are repeated over and over. But the researchers settled on a code structure that skillfully avoided both pitfalls.
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