Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
A team of scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory have successfully used DNA to store data, including a photograph, a research paper, a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and a set of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
How is this done? First, the scientists converted the data into binary code (ones and zeroes) and used a computer program to match these numbers with the four base chemicals of DNA (adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine). The resulting set of genetic “instructions” was then used to piece together DNA strands. A machine can sequence the DNA strands and read back the encoded information.
Previous efforts have successfully coded information onto DNA, but this is the first time such data has been retrieved with total accuracy. DNA offers a very efficient way to store information. It is compact and long-lasting. However, encoding DNA this way is both expensive and time-consuming.
All living things contain DNA, so hypothetically any organism could now become a host for stored information. It could be the ultimate development in espionage: data smuggled on a genetic level. They can’t screen for that in airport security! Some viruses also contain DNA. Since viruses work by replicating themselves, what would happen if they replicated encoded DNA inside every organism they infected?
One advantage of DNA data storage is its longevity. Think about how scientists have sequenced genomes from Neanderthals and other creatures that have been extinct for millennia. It’s way more durable than your corruption-prone PC hard drive. A space explorer who perishes on a faraway planet could carry encoded DNA for alien scientists to one day read messages from Earth. Similarly, if an alien race had the same capacity, we might encounter encoded DNA data from their civilization.
It also had interesting implications for intellectual property law. If I’m carrying a DNA encoded version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, who owns that data? The genes might be mine, but Beethoven wrote the music, and a scientist had to create the encoded version. Now, if we were discussing not a masterpiece from a long-dead composer, but classified blueprints for a technology that could change the world forever. Who owns that information: its creator, or the organism that hosts the encoded DNA?