Skip to Content

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.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Every year, we look for promising technologies poised to have a real impact on the world. Here are the advances that we think matter most right now.

Scientists are finding signals of long covid in blood. They could lead to new treatments.

Faults in a certain part of the immune system might be at the root of some long covid cases, new research suggests.

AI for everything: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT reached mass adoption in record time, and reset the course of an entire industry.

What’s next for AI in 2024

Our writers look at the four hot trends to watch out for this year

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.