The best storage medium might actually be DNA, considering the vast amount of information it store relative to its weight – one gram can theoretically hold some 455 exabytes or more than the data collectively stored by all of Google, Facebook and every other tech company. It’s also very durable. Remember how some scientists thought about cloning mammoths? Well, the DNA they would use is at least 4,000 years old, but DNA has been extracted and sequenced from much older samples, like a 700,000 years-old horse. With this in mind, some scientists got the idea of storing the most critical pieces of modern human knowledge into specially treated DNA – maybe the most effective time capsule ever.
DNA: the information vault
History has thought us that following the collapse of a civilization, whether or not its collective knowledge and science can be passed down to future generations is directly dependent on its capability of storing it somehow – scrolls, books, stone tablets, marked tombs etc. This is why we now know so much about the Romans, ancient Greek or Chinese, but so little about North American natives or Incas. Concerning the latter, the Incas had Amautas, people who were paid to memorize history and teach it to its successors. This system worked for hundreds of years, but it’s clearly unreliable. People might forget some facts, come up with new ones instead and re-write history as they please. Not to mention that if the Amauta dies and there’s no one alive in his stead, then his knowledge and that of his whole people is lost forever. It’s not like it didn’t happen. In times like ours, however, when more information is produced every day than in the whole antiquity, what’s the best way to store our information, such that our children’s children might learn the current understanding of nature and build upon it for generations to come and so forth? Books have been great so far, but clearly they can’t hope to contain the vast amounts of information today and to come. Here’s where DNA might come in.
Robert Grass of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich is currently exploring ways to write and read information in DNA molecules. The simplest method involves treating DNA bases adenine (A) and cytosine (C) as “0” and guanine (G) and thymine (T) as “1”. Now, the problem with DNA is that if it suffers deterioration, then the code encased inside becomes riddled with errors – sort of like bad sectors on a magnetic hard drive. These always give researchers head aches when they’re trying to sequence ancient DNA from fossils. Error-correcting technique like the Reed-Solomon code solve glitches in the DNA to partially reconstruct it. The smartest thing you can do, however, is to prevent DNA degradation altogether, and scientists are taking notes from one of their pet favorites – fossils.
Excluding all water close to the DNA is one of the most important steps, so the researchers encased the DNA in microscopic spheres of glass. Two documents, totaling 83 kilobytes, were encoded in the DNA: the Swiss federal charter from 1291, and the Archimedes Palimpsest, a 10th-century version of ancient Greek texts. To test how well the capsules protected the DNA, these were kept at 60, 65 and 70 °C for a week to simulate ageing. No errors were reported. If kept at a comfortable 10 °C, the researchers estimate the DNA and its precious encoded information could survive for 2,000 years. But it could survive for up to two million years if kept at a chilly -18 °C at the Global Seed Vault in the Arctic, as reported in Angewandte Chemie.
So, sounds like the perfect HDD right? Well, can you imagine the read/write on it? It must be terrible. In fact, it’s so difficult that it costs around £1000 to encode the 83 kilobytes. Wikipedia could end up costing billions! This might change as technology evolves. Let’s not forget that it cost hundreds of million to sequence the first human genome. Now, only a couple of years later it’s in the tens of thousands of dollars range. With this sort of technological leaps in mind, it’s acceptable to think of a time when DNA might actually be employed as functional storing devices – the biological computers of the future. Until then, Grass thinks we should focus on storing essential information that future historians might want to read.
“If you look at how we look at the Middle Ages, it’s very influenced by what information has been stored,” he says. “It’s very important that we get a relatively neutral documentation of our current time and store that.”
But if modern civilization collapses, will anyone know how to read DNA then?
via New Scientist
Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!