Not Just Genes

Some smart cookies have created the information storage of the future. It’s not quantum, it’s not the cloud, it is DNA.

I can only imagine the conversation that must have started this idea off, but it is a brilliant idea. I kind of want to meet these people and shake their hands and then stare wonderingly at my hand for a while.

They’ve only (only) done proof of concept but my god it is a bad-ass concept.

It turns out that DNA in a little tube in a dark cool room lasts for ages, and isn’t susceptible to mutations/evolution/any of that jazz that it is in say, bacteria or people. A living vector wouldn’t really be suitable for information storage (unless it was some sort of biocomputer). It would be like putting a cassette tape in a microwave and then being surprised when it melts, but just letting the DNA hang out somewhere without enzymes is fine.

Wait up, how does this work?

So binary (from various pieces of information; shakespeare’s sonnets, a PDF file, an audio file, a picture, and all the encoding bits and bobs) is turned into base-3 which is turned into DNA. The method of coding, which I must confess I don’t understand entirely, results in fourfold redundancy, increasing the viability of this because you’re more likely to get everything back perfectly.

The redundancy in the amino acid code means “mistakes” can be made without it affecting viability, same as here. Index codes and reverse complementation were also used, all to try and keep the data uncorrupted. Everything was non-repeating, so if some distant future intelligent species were to come across a bank of this DNA, it would be so obviously something fake that they would know it was us (or believe in a God, but if this becomes the main storage system of the world and they successfully decode it, there will be a lot of pictures of cats)

As it turned out, it worked, opening a whole new range of storage systems to humanity.

What is it good for?

This will be perfect for long-term storage systems – the examples given are government and historical records, which as you can imagine are wide-ranging. Something like the seed bank in Norway would be ideal for long-term storage of DNA, although my gut suggests that if we’re encoding all our historical knowledge we should maybe leave it in more than one place.

Because of the prominent position of DNA in our world, we’re always going to be working with it, on it, and around it, which makes it unlikely the ability to extract this information will ever be lost – the code might be, but the technology itself will probably stay in the limelight of science. This makes DNA-based storage, while still a few years away, an incredibly real possibility for stable, long-term storage. As costs drop surrounding encoding and extracting, presumably the applications of this knowledge will expand.

All in all, a very exciting idea that will probably have real-world applications within the next ten years.

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