Saturday, March 16, 2013

Deoxyribonucleic Archives

One is tempted to laugh, or at least to smile wryly, when one hears about the infamous shortsighted quotation which proclaimed that "everything that can be invented has been invented".  The statement was made long before rocket ships, computers or the Internet, to name just a few of the marvelous inventions that could never have been imagined when the comment was first made, and which have since come to fruition.  For that reason, I never make the mistake of making the same assumption.  In fact, I like to think that nothing surprises me anymore.  But even I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow and utter an astonished "Wow!" when I learned that scientists are now working on technology to use DNA for data storage.

The concept was proven by a couple of geneticists by the name of Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney who work for the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI); an organization which spends a lot of time mapping out genomes.  Now a single genome consists of the total genetic contents in one set of chromosomes.  For those of you who, like myself, slept through your high school biology classes, a single chromosome stores genetic material in a strand of DNA, the basic building block of all life.  A single strand of DNA stores a lot of information, so mapping out any sort of genome takes a lot of storage; so much so that the good people at EBI were seeing their data storage costs growing prohibitively.

Then, one day, Goldman and Birney were knocking back a few at the local pub, when they started talking about their data storage dilemma.  Most guys, when they go to the local pub, talk about sports or cars or that hot little number in Purchasing, but not EBI geneticists!  Oh no!  They talk about how to store their genome data.  And they wonder why they can't get a date on a Saturday night.  But I digress.

So Goldman and Birney found themselves reasoning thusly: They needed a lot of storage to map their genomes because DNA contains a lot of data.  So, if DNA stores a lot of data, why not use it to store their data?  It's a sort of "Chicken vs. Egg" scenario and it's the kind of imaginative leap that simply cannot be made without the help of alcohol.

So Goldman and Birney started working out a way of constructing artificial DNA that could be used to store information, and they succeeded.  Because DNA is what biologists call "really, really, really small", if you'll excuse the "techno gab", every film and TV program ever made could be stored in high definition in just a single cup of DNA.  It also requires no electrical power to maintain, can be easily transferred from place to place and will last for eons, as anyone who has seen Jurassic Park, in which dinosaur DNA was successfully extracted from fossilized mosquitos, can attest.

Of course, there are some downsides.  Currently, the storage and retrieval rate is very slow.  It took Goldman and Birney two weeks to store and retrieve five files, including a partial recording of Martin Luthor King's "I Have A Dream" speech (broken up into 4 files) and a PDF document,  which  makes its performance roughly comparable to that of a standard personal computer running Microsoft's Vista operating system.  However, with a few refinements, Goldman and Birney assure us that they should eventually be able to bring down the time required to store and retrieve the same amount of data to just a single day, making the performance comparable to that of a standard personal computer running Windows 7.  Besides the slow data transfer, the cost of DNA storage is still relatively high, and there's always the danger that somebody might accidentally drink your entire movie collection (because it fits into a cup, remember?)

I would imagine that the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) would have some special concerns about this new technology.  Recall that the other unique property of DNA, besides storing a lot of information, is that it's self-replicating.  Imagine downloading music or movies that automatically start making copies of themselves!  We could wind up with porn that makes more porn!  Or, since DNA sometimes makes imperfect or altered copies of itself (known as "mutations"), we may finally have an explanation for what happened to the original Star Wars trilogy.

Since DNA is, after all, the basic building block of life, there's also the danger that our data could evolve into some horrible living mutation of the original data.  The complete works of William Shakespeare could mutate into a rampaging monster, spewing "harks" and "forsooths" as it devours every Stephen King novel ever written and, possibly, Stephen King himself.

The scientists working on this technology assure us that there's no way that  artificial DNA used to store data could ever become a life form.  I'll bet Dr. Frankenstein made the same reassurances as he stitched together his corpse parts.

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