What’s more, it is ubiquitous on Earth, and unlikely to become obsolete as long as life continues—convenient for aliens waiting for humans to develop the sequencing technologies necessary to decode their messages.
A few decades later, however, things began to change. Oligonucleotide synthesis was becoming more routine, and researchers could write small amounts of arbitrary information into nucleic acids for under a dollar per base. In 2001, for example, a team at Mount Sinai School of Medicine wrote out two Dickens quotes totaling 70 bytes in DNA sequences—encoding each letter of the alphabet as combinations of the bases A, C, and T (e.g., AAA = A, AAC = B, etc.). Eight years later, researchers in Toronto created a plasmid library containing more than 200 bytes of coded text, music, and an image from the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” In 2010, Craig Venter’s group demonstrated progress in oligonucleotide synthesis by artificially synthesizing the entire genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides—about 1.1 million base pairs.
In total, the team made 54,898 oligonucleotides, each including 96 bases of data along with a 22-base sequence at each end to allow the fragments to be copied in parallel using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and a unique, 19-base “address” sequence marking the segment’s position in the original document.
DNA can store data at a density that is several orders of magnitude greater than that of state-of-the-art storage media, never mind the average computer hard drive.
The researchers encoded and read out, error-free, more than 2 MB of compressed data—stored in 72,000 oligonucleotides—including a computer operating system, a movie, and an Amazon gift card.
Thinking outside the box
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- L. Organick et al., “Scaling up DNA data storage and random access retrieval,” bioRxiv, doi:10.1101/114553, 2017.
- S.M.H.T. Yazdi et al., “Portable and error-free DNA-based storage,” Sci Rep, 7:5011, 2017.
- S.L. Shipman et al., “CRISPR-Cas encoding of a digital movie into the genomes of a population of living bacteria,” Nature, doi:10.1038/nature23017, 2017.