Friday, March 3, 2017

This Speck of DNA Contains a Movie, a Computer Virus, and an Amazon Gift Card

In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers—among the first filmmakers in history released a movie called The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Just 50 seconds long, it consists of a silent, unbroken, monochrome shot of a train pulling into a platform full of people. It was a vivid example of the power of “animated photographs”, as one viewer described them. Now, 122 years later, The Arrival of a Train is breaking new ground again. It has just become one of the first movies to be stored in DNA.

In the famous double-helices of life’s fundamental molecule, Yaniv Erlich and Dina Zielinski from the New York Genome Center and Columbia University encoded the movie, along with a computer operating system, a photo, a scientific paper, a computer virus, and an Amazon gift card.

They used a new strategy, based on the codes that allow movies to stream reliably across the Internet. In this way, they managed to pack the digital files into record-breakingly small amounts of DNA. A one terabyte hard drive currently weighs around 150 grams. Using their methods, Erlich and Zielinski can fit 215,000 times as much data in a single gram of DNA. You could fit all the data in the world in the back of a car.

Storing information in DNA isn’t new: life has been doing it for as long as life has existed. The molecule looks like a twisting ladder, whose rungs are made from four building blocks, denoted by the letters A, C, G, and T. The sequence of these letters encodes the instructions for building every living thing. And if you can convert the ones and zeroes of digital data into those four letters, you can use DNA to encode pretty much anything.

Why bother? Because DNA has advantages that other storage media do not. It takes up much less space. It is very durable, as long as it is kept cold, dry, and dark—DNA from mammoths that died thousands of years ago can still be extracted and sequenced. And perhaps most importantly, it has a 3.7-billion-year track record. Floppy disks, VHS, zip disks, laser disks, cassette tapes… every media format eventually becomes obsolete, and every new format forces people to buy new reading devices and update their archives. But DNA will never become obsolete. It has such central importance that biologists will always want to study it. Sequencers will continue to improve, but there will always be sequencers.

by Ed Yong, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: NY Genome Center