Even the highest quality archival medium is no match for DNA.
To demonstrate this, researchers stored historic audio recordings on these molecules for the first time and then retrieved them with 100 percent accuracy. The experiment showed that DNA not only offers a place to save a dense package of information in a tiny space, but because it can last for hundreds of years, it reduces the risk that it will go out of date or degrade in the way that cassette tapes, compact discs, and even computer hard drives can.
“DNA is intrinsically and exquisitely a stable molecule,” Emily Leproust, CEO of the biotech firm Twist Bioscience, which works on DNA synthesis, told Seeker. Her company collaborated with Microsoft, the University of Washington, and the Montreux Jazz Digital Project on the DNA data feat.
The two performances they stored and retrieved, “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple and “Tutu” by Miles Davis, are the first DNA-saved files to be added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Archive, a collection of audio and visual pieces of cultural significance. Both were performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, an annual event in Switzerland.
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Last week, the retrieved versions of each song were played for a different audience, this one at the ArtTech Forum in Lausanne, Switzerland, which promotes innovations at the intersection of science and culture. In digital form, the songs take up about 140 MB of hard drive space. In DNA form, they’re mere specks, much smaller than a grain of sand.
Leproust told Seeker that if the all of music from the Montreux Jazz Digital Project — six petabytes of digital data (the equivalent of six million gigabytes) — were saved to DNA, it would fit on a grain of rice.
Storing and retrieving files to and from DNA starts with the digital file. The researchers converted the binary code, the 1s and 0s of computer language, into the genetic code that makes up DNA, the A, C, T, and G nucleotide bases. For example, 00 could be turned into A, 10 could be turned into C, 01 could be turned into G, and 11 could be turned into T.
They then made synthetic segments of DNA by combining the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs in the sequences that represented the binary code. The short segments each contain about 12 bytes of data as well as a sequence number, which is also made of bases to indicate the location the specific data within the overall DNA file.
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When this work was complete, they used conventional DNA sequencing technology to make sure that the genetic bases were in the correct order. Lastly, they then decoded the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs and turned them back into digital 1s and 0s so that the data could be played like a contemporary music file.
“In principal, it doesn’t really matter what the file is,” Leproust noted. “A movie or video or PDF file — that’s the beauty of DNA. It’s universal.”
Copying the DNA files is done the same way DNA is typically copied, with a polymerase chain reaction machine. Because this storage strategy is a proof-of-concept that uses high-tech lab equipment, it’s not affordable for the masses. But as with all new technology, Leproust said, the cost will go down as they refine the technique and it becomes more common.
To archive the DNA files over a long period of time, Leproust and her colleagues are working with chemist Robert Grass of ETH Zurich, who has developed a way to encapsulate DNA in particles of silica. If perfected, data encoded in DNA could be locked away for thousands of years.
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