August 18, 2012

How Good Is Our DNA

Where do we store the vast and expanding information in our universe? 

These days it's typically in 0 and 1s--binary code--on computer chips. 

But according to the Wall Street Journal (18 August 2012), in the future, it could be encoded in the genetic molecules of DNA.

DNA has "vastly more capacity for their size then today's computer chips and drives"--where a thumb size amount could store the entire Internet--or "1.5 milligrams, about half the weight of a house ant could hold 1 petabyte of data, which equals to 1,000 1-terabyte hard drives."

As opposed to binary code, DNA will store information as strands made up of four base chemicals: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). 

Just like letters in the alphabet make up words, sequencing of these 4 base chemicals can store biological instructions (e.g. 3 billion for a person) or any other information. 

Using DNA for storage involves 4 key steps: 

1) Encoding information into binary code
2) Synthesizing the chemical molecules
3) Sequencing them in a string to hold the information
4) Decoding the molecules back into information

Overall, DNA is seen as a "stable, long-term archive for ordinary information"--such as books, files, records, photos, and more.

Researchers have actually been able to store an entire book of genetic engineering--with 53,426 words--into actual DNA, and "if you wanted to have your library encoded in DNA, you could probably do that now."

With the cost declining for synthesizing and sequencing DNA, this type of data storage may become commercially practical in the future.

And with the amount of information roughly doubling every 2 years, large amounts of reliable and cost-effective memory remains an important foundation for the future of computing. 

Frankly, when we talk about storing so much information in these minute areas, it is completely mind-boggling--really no different than the corollary of imaging all the stars in vastness of sky.

It is almost incredible to me that we have people that can not only understand these things, but make them work for us. 

With NASA's Curiosity Rover exploring Mars over 34 million miles away, and geneticists storing libraries of information in test tubes of DNA coding, we are truly expanding our knowledge at the edges of the great and small in our Universe. 

How far can we continue to go before we discover the limitations to our quest or the underlying mysteries of life itself?

What is also curious to me is how on one hand, we are advancing our scientific and technological knowledge as a society, yet on the other, as individuals, we seem to be losing our knowledge for even basic human survival. 

How many people these days, are proficient on the computer in an office setting, but couldn't survive in the wilderness for even a few days. 

Our skills sets are changing drastically--this is the age of the microwave, but knowing how to cook is a lost art to many. 

So are we really getting smarter or just engaging our minds in a new direction--I hope we have the DNA to do more than just one! ;-)

(Source Photo: adapted from here with attribution to Allen Gathmen)


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