Harvard encodes data in DNA

-August 17, 2012

As an editor I’ve been told more than once that there’s a book somewhere in me. Thanks to researchers at Harvard University, there could one day be a book in all of us.

The researchers have successfully transformed a 53,000-word book into DNA. The achievement could one day make DNA a long-term data storage medium, more so than it already is, for common, everyday information.

The data is recorded on individual nucleobase pairs in the DNA strand and can store more information per cubic millimeter than flash memory. Harvard’s work is written up in the journal Science.

Harvard points out that although other projects have encoded data in the DNA of living bacteria, the team used commercial DNA microchips to create standalone DNA. Encoding the 53,000 word book, this project stored 1,000 times the largest amount of data previously stored in DNA.

The book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, was written by George Church. Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and a founding core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biomedical Engineering at Harvard University, also lead the team of researchers. Church discusses the method and why they chose his book to encode in the below video from Harvard.

The method used binary code to preserve the text, images, and formatting of the book. Harvard claims the method is able to store all of the world’s data in four grams of DNA. As Church notes in the video, should a tremendously wonderful or tremendously disastrous thing ever happen to the world, all data could be saved.  (So should a nuclear disaster leave only a handful of survivors to rebuild the world, they’ll have DNA-stored data to do so. Of course that assumes that artificial intelligence does not overcome the human race and eliminate all tracks of our existence.)

To be true, the methods are far from being ready for commercial availability and, unlike other DNA-storage work, the Harvard work was not inserted into a living cell but kept in a laboratory container – so you won’t be able to insert your favorite Harry Potter book into your being anytime soon. However, should the research get to the point that the DNA could be securely injected into the living cells of a walking, talking human, such a feat would offer tremendous possibility as well as complications.

While I see little value in being a walking copy of Pride and Prejudice, potential applications like ingraining medical files or family contact information in DNA could be very handy in times of emergency. And housing information on personal financials could be safer in DNA than in the cloud, although carrying such data in ourselves rather than on ourselves (as in a wallet or iPhone app) could open up a whole new type of assault. (Mugger now says: “Give me your wallet and nobody gets hurt.” Could a mugger one day say: “Swab the inside of your check and nobody gets hurt”?)

What are your thoughts on DNA as a storage medium? Share your comments below.

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