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An Entire Book Written in DNA

Researchers at Harvard encode information in DNA at a density on par with any other experimental storage method.

DNA can be used to store information at a density about a million times greater than your hard drive, report researchers in Science today. George Church of Harvard Medical School and colleagues report that they have written an entire book in DNA, a feat that highlights the recent advances in DNA synthesis and sequencing.

The team encoded a draft HTML version of a book co-written by Church called Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. In addition to the text, the biological bits included the information for modern formatting, images and Javascript, to show that “DNA (like other digital media) can encode executable directives for digital machines,” they write.

To do this, the authors converted the computational language of 0’s and 1’s into the language of DNA–the nucleotides typically represented by A’s, T’s G’s and C’s; the A’s and C’s took the place of 0’s and T’s and G’s of 1’s. They then used off-the-shelf DNA synthesizers to make 54,898 pieces of DNA, each 159 nucleotides long, to encode the book, which could then be decoded with DNA sequencing.

This is not the first time non-biological information has been stored in DNA, but Church’s demonstration goes far beyond the amount of information stored in previous efforts. For example, in 2009, researchers encoded 1688 bits of text, music and imagery in DNA and in 2010, Craig Venter and colleagues encoded a watermarked, synthetic genome worth 7920 bits. In this study, Church and company stored 5.27 megabits of data.

DNA synthesis and sequencing is still too slow and costly to be practical for most data storage, but the authors suggest DNA’s long-lived nature could make it a suitable medium for archival storage.

Erik Winfree, who studies DNA-based computation at Caltech and was a 1999 TR35 winner, hopes the study will stimulate a serious discussion about what roles DNA can play in information science and technology.  

“The most remarkable thing about DNA is its information density, which is roughly one bit per cubic nanometer,” he writes in an email.

“Technology changes things, and many old ideas for DNA information storage and information processing deserve to be revisited now – especially since DNA synthesis and sequencing technology will continue their remarkable advance.” 

This post was revised with additional information on August 17.

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