As reported in Nature, each letter in the
words "Thou art more" is first converted first into a binary code of zeros and ones, and then translated through a process into five distinct DNA letters.
For instance, the "T" in the word "Thou" becomes TAGAT.
Goldman and Birney first dreamed up the project in a pub in Hamburg, jotting down their thoughts on a napkin. Later they studied past efforts to use
DNA to store data, and wanted to make some improvements to eliminate errors from earlier coding schemes.
Once they created their new DNA language they sent the ACG and T versions of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets to Agilent Technologies in Santa Clara, California.
The company synthesized the strings of nucleic acids and shipped them back to the scientists, who reconstructed every line with 100 percent accuracy.
The researchers also created strings of DNA that stored part of Martin Luther King's 1963 "I have a dream" speech, plus the famous 1953 Nature paper by Francis Crick and James Watson that first
described the double helical structure of DNA.
"I think it's a really important milestone," said Harvard geneticist George Church in Nature. Last year,
Church encoded in DNA a draft of his recent book, Regenesis, and some other materials.
This process may also save us from drowning in our own information. In 2011, IBM estimated that 90 percent of all human data had been produced in the
previous two years. This year, the total data produced in the world is expected to reach 2.7 zettabytes (zetta = sextillions).
Storing and processing all of this information takes millions of servers in vast warehouses, a grid that consumes about 30 billion watts of electricity a
year. That's the equivalent output of about 30 nuclear power plants, according to a
recent article in The New York Times. Estimates of power usage to keep servers going -- which adds to the production of greenhouse gases -- ranges
from 1.5 percent to 2.2 percent of all power consumed in the U.S.
Compare this to DNA. One Shakespeare sonnet, rendered in DNA, weighs in at only 0.3 millionths of a millionth of a gram. One gram of DNA could hold the data
from more than a million CDs. To put this in perspective, using George Church's method of coding words to DNA, one gram of DNA could store 700 terabytes of
data in chunk of DNA that could fit on your fingertip.
Plus, DNA stored under the right conditions -- cold, dark, and dry -- could last up to thousands of years. The evidence comes from the discovery of DNA in
long extinct animals like mammoths and Neanderthals, some of which has survived intact for tens of thousands of years.
You won't, however, be storing your favorite Led Zeppelin tunes or your Facebook profile pictures on DNA anytime soon. The cost per megabyte of data encoded
runs around $12,400, according to Nature, and an
additional $220 to translate it back into materials that might include, say, "Whole Lotta Love" or that shot of you vacationing in Maui -- or "Sonnet 18."