This past Wednesday, the scientific journal Nature witnessed the publication of a report stating that a team of scientists had succeeded in taking all of William Shakespeare's sonnets and encoding them in DNA.For those unaware, DNA (i.e. deoxyribonucleic acid, if one prefers) is basically a molecule whose sole purpose is that of encoding the genetic instructions needed for the development and functioning of all known living organisms.
However, as several studies and this experiment have more than thoroughly shown, DNA can also be used to store information presently kept on hard disks and magnetic tape.
As the scientists who have investigated this issue explain, encoding bits and pieces of information in DNA makes considerably more sense than using hard disks and magnetic tape, simply because the latter are by no means as compact and as durable as DNA is.
Besides this collection of sonnets, the researchers who embarked on this project used DNA to store a 26-audio clip (i.e. a fragment from Martin Luther King's “I have a dream” speech), a copy of James Watson and Francis Crick's analysis on the structure of DNA, a picture of the institute where the experiment was carried out and an explanation on how all the aforementioned data were converted and encoded.
All in all, a total of 5.2 million bits of information made their way into DNA.
As for all the science talk surrounding this experiment, it all goes a little bit like this: the data that the researchers wished to store in DNA was in normal computer code (i.e. a long string of ones and zeros).
Courtesy of a computer program, the ones and the zeros were converted into the letters A, C, G and T (i.e. the four chemical bases that make up the DNA).
Later on, this rather long DNA-based string was broken down into 150,000 fragments, each 120-letters long.
Of these 120 letters, 100 encoded the data, whereas 20 represented instructions for putting the fragments back in the right order.
In case anyone was wondering, the researchers also went through the trouble of retrieving this data, and did so with 99.9% accuracy.
Needless to say, this means that DNA storage might soon constitute a noteworthy alternative to the hard disks, tape recorders and the like now piling up in homes and research centers worldwide.
“All we're doing is adapting what nature has hit upon—a very good way of storing information,” argued Nick Goldman, a computational biologist at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, England, and the study's lead author.