Harvard University molecular geneticist George Church stores his latest book on encoded DNA in a vial. Image Source: Kelvin Ma for the Wall Street Journal.
Some days, I look at the news headlines, and I wish Morrissey were here to write the blog post titles. Honestly. The WSJ reports that (the ironically surnamed) Harvard Professor of Genetics George Church has vastly expanded an amazing jump from the mechanical to the biological. He has figured out how to encode computer data for his entire book into DNA. This finding, building on others' previous work over the past decade, is one of the silver bullets of the Technological Singularity.
The report only discusses this research in terms of data storage. Surely, related DNA data manipulation will blur the dividing line between life and non-life, bringing Professor Church and his colleagues in this field to the cutting edge of what is known as 'synthetic biology.' It is amazing, a truly incredible accomplishment to be admired; and it makes my very soul weary. Robert Lee Hotz at the WSJ writes:
In the latest effort to contend with exploding quantities of digital data, researchers encoded an entire book into the genetic molecules of DNA, the basic building block of life, and then accurately read back the text.
The experiment, reported Thursday in the journal Science, may point a way toward eventual data-storage devices with vastly more capacity for their size than today's computer chips and drives.
"A device the size of your thumb could store as much information as the whole Internet," said Harvard University molecular geneticist George Church, the project's senior researcher.
In their work, the group translated the English text of a coming book on genomic engineering into actual DNA.
DNA contains genetic instructions written in a simple but powerful code made up of four chemicals called bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T).
The Harvard researchers started with the digital version of the book, which is composed of the ones and zeros that computers read. Next, on paper, they translated the zeros into either the A or C of the DNA base pairs, and changed the ones into either the G or T.
Then, using now-standard laboratory techniques, they created short strands of actual DNA that held the coded sequence—almost 55,000 strands in all. Each strand contained a portion of the text and an address that indicated where it occurred in the flow of the book.
In that form—a viscous liquid or solid salt—a billion copies of the book could fit easily into a test tube and, under normal conditions, last for centuries, the researchers said. ...
The exact order of the DNA bases—which for the average person is a sequence of about three billion—determines the meaning of the biological instructions stored in genes and chromosomes, just as letters of the alphabet make up words and sentences.
Some scientists have been experimenting with ways to use that code to store other kinds of information.
Research groups in the U.S., Europe and Canada devised ways to use DNA to encode trademarks and secret messages in cells. And when genomics pioneer Craig Venter and colleagues created the first synthetic cell in 2010, they wrote their names into its DNA code, the way an artist might sign a painting, along with three literary quotations and a website address.
Other researchers used DNA to encode poetry and popular music inside the living cells of bacteria.
In 2003, genetic engineers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state created micro-organisms that carry the tune of Disney's "It's a Small World (After All)" in their DNA.
Unlike these earlier DNA storage experiments, the DNA book reported Thursday wasn't inserted into a living cell but kept in a laboratory container. If incorporated into a living cell, the stored DNA data might be changed or erased by the normal process of cell biology.
"The cell kicks out foreign DNA," said Harvard's Dr. Church. "In a tube, it is less subject to evolution."
Moby Dick, passed over for historic DNA encoding opportunity. Image Source: Kate of Mind (read the Moby Dick review!).