Could the library of the future replace bookshelves with petri dishes? New research into the possibility of storing information in DNA has already preserved words by Shakespeare and Martin Luther King in genetic material. A project led by the European Bioinformatics Institute's Nick Goldman condensed the Bard's 154 sonnets into strands of DNA. They used a similar process to encode audio of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
Here's how the process, outlined yesterday on the website of leading scientific journal Nature, works: The scientists took these writers' famous words, encrypted them using a cipher that corresponds with DNA's four nucleic acids (A, C, G, or T), synthesized strands of DNA according to that code, and chilled the resulting samples in dark, dry conditions, where they should last for millennia. Goldman tells NPR's Adam Cole that one of our generation's biggest problems—organizing and storing the deluge of data we face every day—could be solved using DNA:
The data we're being asked to be guardians of is growing exponentially. But our budgets are not growing exponentially ... We realized that DNA itself is a really efficient way of storing information.
This process shrinks information much more than existing formats like hard drives or magnetic tape. Or paper-bound books. Let's consider that a physical copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets from the Folger Shakespeare Library weighs 7 ounces. Project Gutenberg's digital version of the poems takes up 95 KB on your Kindle. That might seem pretty compact, but physical books and e-books are majorly inefficient storage methods when contrasted with genetic encoding. Shall we compare these to a strand of DNA? Goldman's team showed that they can fit the entire database of pioneering particle physics lab CERN (which holds approximately 90 petabytes of information) onto just 41 grams of DNA. In comparison, every sonnet Shakespeare ever wrote could fit on a mere speck of genetic material.