Study conducted by the Harvard scientist reveals ability to encode data in DNA

November 29, 2012

Study conducted by the Harvard scientist reveals ability to encode data in DNA

Scientist successfully encodes his own book in DNA.

Scientists at Harvard University have sucessfully encoded a textbook into DNA as part of a study supported by the U.S. Navy.

George Church, a Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and a founding core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biomedical Engineering at Harvard University, and his team of scientists recently encoded the book “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves” in DNA and then read and copied it.

Mr. Church’s team used binary code to protect the text, images and other content of the book while it was being copied into DNA.

The researchers believe that the DNA has a storage capacity of 5.5 petabits, or 1 million gigabits per cubic millimeter of DNA.

“The information density and scale compare favorably with other experimental storage methods from biology and physics,” said Sri Kosuri, a senior scientist at the Wyss Institute.

According to Mr. Church’s team, the DNA could store the amount of digital data that it takes “humankind” to create over the course of an entire year.

DNA also has advantages over other experimental storage media, such as quantum holography which require extreme temperatures to function properly.

“You can drop it wherever you want, in the desert or your backyard, and it will be there 400,000 years later,” said Mr. Church.

The federally-funded study differed from other studies involving DNA as a storage medium, primarily because the Church team used commercial DNA microchips to create standalone DNA. In most other studies involving the storage properties of DNA, the memory is often injected into the DNA of living bacteria.

“We purposefully avoided living cells,” said Mr. Church.

“In an organism, your message is a tiny fraction of the whole cell, so there’s a lot of wasted space. But more importantly, almost as soon as a DNA goes into a cell, if that DNA doesn’t earn its keep, if it isn’t evolutionarily advantageous, the cell will start mutating it, and eventually the cell will completely delete it,” added the Harvard Medical school professor.

The textbook was encoded in in 96-bit data blocks, each with a 19-bit address to guide reassembly. The code required a total of 54,898 of these data blocks, each of which have a unique DNA sequence.

“We wanted to illustrate how the modern world is really full of zeroes and ones, not As through Zs alone,” said Mr. Kosuri.

The researchers discussed including a strand of DNA with each book order, however they decided against it.


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