A very tiny printing press: Writing books into DNA

There may be 70 billion copies of George Church and Ed Regis’ Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature in existence, but don’t look for it on any best-sellers list and don’t expect to pick up a copy from Barnes & Noble. On the other hand, carrying all 70 billion copies is easy because you can slip them into your pocket and still have room for your wallet and keys.

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Photo from Creative Commons.

Church and Regis’ book (which includes 11 jpegs and one computer program) isn’t written for an e-reader. It’s written into a DNA molecule, just like one of the trillions in your entire body. Church and Sriram Kosuri researched how to store information into DNA at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. Their solution is simple: translate binary into nucleotides, and place those nucleotides into a DNA molecule. Nucleotides are the small bricks that stack up to form long strands of DNA. They include adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. Adenine and cytosine became one, and thymine and guanine became zero. Using this, they created several hundred thousand unique strands of DNA.

In terms of storage, DNA is the most dependable system within human reach. Inside of the cell, DNA mutates and replaces useless parts, but these synthetic molecules won’t have a chance to mutate, giving them the ability to last a couple million years without detrimental damage. Another reason it may be the storage system of choice in the future is the constantly decreasing costs of working with DNA. Technology to write DNA and sequence it improves ten-fold per year, even faster than we can improve our cellphones. On top of the rapidly growing access to this technology, the storage capacity DNA has is limitless as far as humans can comprehend.

“A device the size of your thumb could store as much information as the whole Internet,” said Church.

Which leaves only one question: do we have to store the trolls too?