Synthetic Biology: Books in DNA

As an extension of a post Sophia made earlier, here’s another application of synthetic biology:2113544-20120816-925

Geneticists have long been amazed at the ability of DNA to store so much information at a molecular level. A combination of merely four bases has the ability to store all the information required to build an organism, from a simple bacterium through to far more complicated organism such as humans. These bases are known as adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine. Not only does DNA have this immense storage potential, it stores it in an incredibly tiny amount of space. The human genome is over 3 billion base pairs long and over two meters in physical length, yet is packaged into a nucleus only a few micrometers in size. That’s a few thousandths of a millimetre!

Recently, the huge advances made in genetic engineering tools and techniques have allowed scientists to surpass what was once considered impossibleand to build biomolecular structures, such as entire genetic sequences, largely from scratch. The most well publicised example is the synthetic organism Synthia, constructed by scientists in Craig Venter’s lab. Venter’s team synthesised Synthia’s DNA and inserted it into an empty bacterial cell.

An exciting new use of synthetic biology has been achieved by a team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute in 2012 – the encoding of an entire 5.27Mb book in DNA. This combined binary information storage with the DNA sequence. Adenine and cytosine were the equivalent of a 0, and thymine and guanine representative of a 1. To “read” the book, the researchers could use DNA sequencing technology to turn the DNA code into binary, then the binary into words. . At a theoretical maximum, DNA has the potential to store one exabayte, or one quintillion bytes, on a single gram of DNA. That’s over a billion times of the size of your average 250GB laptop. This makes it a  invaluable tool for storing data, as our increasing demand for efficient data storage is exceeding our current technology.

However, this technology still has its limitations. Storing a book or other information in DNA is expensive. It is still far cheaper to simply print it. This doesn’t mean that storing data in DNA is useless; on the contrary. With progression in DNA technology this becomes cheaper and more feasible over time. Considering the speed at which technology progresses, it’s amazing how far we’ve come already, and completely unimaginable where this technology might take us.

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