The first book written in DNA

Science and Technology
Could DNA be the future of data storage/Credit: spectrum.ieee.org

For any author, having 70 billion copies of their book published worldwide would be a tremendous success beyond their wildest dreams, especially since the total number copies produced for the two hundred most popular titles of all time gives a comparably modest figure of only around 20 billion. So how did 70 billion copies of the book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA by George Church and Ed Regis come in to existence?

Researchers at the Wyss Institute for biomedical engineering at Harvard University have encoded the 53,000-word book, as well as 11 images and a JavaScript computer programme, into the fundamental ingredient of life: DNA.  Dr George Church and Sriram Kosuri reported in the journal ‘Science’ that they had managed to store 5.27 megabits of data, more than 600 times the amount previously stored in this way.

The process of encoding the book into DNA took the pair around two weeks to complete. Church and Kosuri first converted an electronic copy of the book into binary code, which they then translated into the 4 bases found in DNA. The bases adenine (A) and cytosine (C) were represented by ones and the other two bases, guanine (G) and thymine (T), were represented by zeroes.

The pair opted to use short chunks of DNA rather than long sequences in order to maximise reliability and minimise costs. Small fragments of the artificially synthesized DNA were embedded onto a glass chip by an inkjet printer, which can be read using the same techniques archaeologists use to study DNA found on ancient materials and relics. A digital “address” code was incorporated into each fragment, corresponding to its location in the original file, thus allowing a computer to generate the book in the correct sequence.

The unique properties of DNA, such as its high density and energy efficient nature, lead Church and his co-workers to believe that these techniques could be used to revolutionise data storage in the future.  In theory, you would only need 4 grams of DNA to store all the digital data the world produces in one year.  And with a theoretical lifespan of about 3.5 billion years, it seems to be the perfect solution for long term archival storage. “You can drop it wherever you want, in the desert or your backyard, and it will be there 400,000 years later,” said Church.

But we probably shouldn’t be expecting vials of DNA to be replacing memory storage in our phones and computers anytime soon. DNA storage techniques are still far too expensive for commercial use, but are progressing at a very speedy rate. “Classical electronic technology is moving forward something like 1.5 fold per year,” states Dr. Church, “whereas reading and writing DNA is improving roughly tenfold per year. We’ve already had a million-fold improvement in the past few years, which is shocking.”

The team did consider including a DNA copy with each print edition of Regenesis when it is published in October this year. However, as both the authors, Church and Regis, strongly believe in being careful and vigilant in the management of the practices and products of artificial biology, they ultimately decided against the inclusion until there has been more intense scrutiny of the safety and ethics of this technology.