In the most celebrated example of scientific understatement (or false modesty), Watson and Crick famously noted in their 1953 Nature paper on the structure of DNA that, "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." In the decades since, as the details of DNA transcription, translation, and sequencing were being spelled out, it did not escape the notice of the bioinformatics world that a code is a code. If information could be recorded in binary numbers, why not in nucleotides?
In 1999, a short message was encoded as a DNA microdot while artist-scientist Edouardo Kac converted a sentence from the Book of Genesis ("Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.") into Morse code and then into DNA. These and other such demonstrations were short, inefficient, and lacking in any robust error-correction mechanism. Then earlier this month, Ewan Birney and colleagues at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in the UK working with scientists at Agilent Technologies in Santa Clara, CA, announced that they had used DNA for nearly a megabit of hard disk storage.
The researchers translated 737 KB of digital data into DNA code, synthesized into 153,335 strands, each exactly 117 nucleotides long. The files were freeze-dried and shipped at ambient temperature without any special packaging from California via the UK to Germany where the original files were resuspended, amplified, and purified at the EMBL Genomics Core Facility before being sequenced and translated back into digital form with 100% accuracy. This demonstrates, the researchers say, the feasibility of "large scale, long-term, infrequently accessed digital archiving," all captured on the medium of DNA.
It should not escape notice that along with 154 Shakespeare sonnets, a jpeg of the EBI building, a 26-second MP3 of Martin Luther King speaking, and the coding algorithm for the whole package, the researchers included the text of Watson and Crick’s 1953 Nature paper.
Created on Tuesday, February 19, 2013