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Shakespeare’s Sonnets Successfully Stored in DNA

Okay, we realize that the PR angle on this one is a bit of a stretch, but we’re not sure whether we think this is totally awesome or extremely creepy, and we thought the public might relate to our quandry (see what we did there?). Plus, it’s Friday, and cool stories are cooler on Fridays. Fact.

The plan to try and store information in DNA was hatched (as so many weird and wonderful ideas are) while Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman, both scientists from the European Bioinformatics Institute, were discussing a problem over a beer.

The institute where they work is responsible for storing and maintaining a huge database of genetic information, including many thousands of genes from humans, corn, pufferfish…you name it. Storing all of that ever-compounding data on hard drives was becoming financially problematic.

“The data we’re being asked to be guardians of is growing exponentially,” Goldman told NPR. “But our budgets are not growing exponentially.”

Then it occurred to them:

“We realized that DNA itself is a really efficient way of storing information,” Goldman said. And it is millions of times more compact that a computer hard drive to boot. This realization naturally called for more brainstorming (and a second beer).

DNA’s sole purpose is to store and transmit information, which is encoded in a sort of chemical language — four nucleotides abbreviated as A, C, G and T. When these letters are arranged in different orders, they translate into different instructions for cells (it takes roughly 3 billion of these letters to make up the human genome).

We won’t get into the gory scientific details, but basically, these two brew-inspired scientists managed to convert a text file of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets into the computer’s most basic language (lots of zeros and ones), and then used a ciper to translate those numbers into the four letters of DNA. They did the same thing with the rest of ole’ Will’s sonnets, an audio clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a photo of their office. They then sent the codes to a biotech company, which synthesized the DNA and sent it back to them.

Then came the moment of truth: To read the sonnets, Goldman and Birney sequenced the DNA and then simply ran their cipher backward. Every single file was completely, 100 percent accurate. SCIENCE!

While at the moment the cost of such DNA storage would be prohibitively expensive for any company to consider doing on a large scale (roughly $12,400 per megabyte), scientists say that in a decade or so it may become a more feasible and efficient means of data storage.

So what do you think, readers? Like we said, we’re still too much in awe to pass judgement, though we are looking forward to the inevitable science fiction drama centered around a character whose DNA was secretly altered to house covert, sinister government plans…

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