Harvard Stores Data in DNA, Next Hollywood Thriller Writes Itself

Harvard Stores Data in DNA, Next Hollywood Thriller Writes Itself

Harvard scientists have figured out how to use DNA as a storage device, putting 5.5 petabits of data into one gram of DNA. I had to read a handful of articles before one finally answered the burning question: HOW DOES IT WORK? How do you take bits and put them into human genetic material? It's such an abstract concept I just couldn't wrap my head around it.

swabbing DNA
Swabbing DNA by Irina Slutsky via Flickr

Thankfully, the Wall Street Journal came to the rescue and explained how the scientists encoded and implanted a book into DNA:

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.

So what does it mean? How much information is 5.5 petabits, anyway? And why does any of this matter? Because storage is expensive, that's why. And we are constantly generating more information. Especially with the Internet, humans are a creature bent on content creation. As ExtremeTech puts it:

Just think about it for a moment: One gram of DNA can store 700 terabytes of data. That’s 14,000 50-gigabyte Blu-ray discs… in a droplet of DNA that would fit on the tip of your pinky. To store the same kind of data on hard drives — the densest storage medium in use today — you’d need 233 3TB drives, weighing a total of 151 kilos.

ComputerWorld breaks it down even further:

If this innovative way of storing data actually becomes commercially viable, we would be able to fit the entire Library of Congress in a test tube. All the data housed on the Internet could be stored in a small closet.

Sometimes reality is so much more strange than science fiction. This is possibly the kewlest and most terrifying discovery I've ever heard of. Think about the big brother possibilities, or Hollywood movie scripts options: Powers that be implanting people with data under the guise of drug trials or flu shots, data which can be extracted later by referring them to medical "specialists". The possibility of implanting family secrets into your own DNA and then passing them on by birthing progeny.

I envision a movie about someone who has a secret implanted in their DNA and is being hunted by bad guys for a sample. He hides some secret caches while he is on the run and creates a time-sensitive trigger to leak the info to a reporter if something happens to him.

Think I've got a wild imagination? Who needs imagination? With real science this stuff writes itself!

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