Shakespeare, thou art stored in DNA
January 23rd, 2013
01:01 PM ET

Shakespeare, thou art stored in DNA

The stuff we’re made of may be the means by which we store information that we want kept around long after we're gone.

Scientists have developed a technique of storing information in DNA, the molecule found in living creatures including humans that contains genetic instructions. The experiment is discussed in a new study in the journal Nature.

Researchers aren't using DNA from any living organism, or one that was once alive; instead, they are synthesizing it.

"We’re using DNA here as a chemical molecule of storage. It just happens to be the same molecule that is used in our bodies as well," said Ewan Birney, senior author of the study and geneticist at the United Kingdom's European Bioinformatics Institute, at a press briefing Tuesday.

As long as the DNA is kept cold, dry and dark, it will last for a long time. Consider that scientists can sequence DNA from woolly mammoths tens of thousands of years old that’s preserved by chance.

“There must be some point in time when it’s cheaper to store information for that length of time as DNA than as something that requires electricity or some other maintenance cost to keep it around,” Birney said.

Birney and colleagues did the math, and found that although DNA storage is expensive, it's more cost-effective than other methods if you want to preserve a digital file for somewhere between 600 and 5,000 years. However, the scientists say the synthesis cost will probably come down in the next decade, so DNA storage could even work for ensuring your grandchildren can see your wedding photos.

"Anything that you want to store we could store," Birney said. "Really, the only limit is the expense."

Study collaborators at Agilent Technologies provided DNA synthesis free of charge for the Nature paper, but commercial rates for DNA synthesis are probably between $10,000 and $30,000, researchers said.

The technique, researchers said, could even encode a zettabyte’s worth of data. That's enough to encompass the total amount of digital information that currently exists on Earth, which would be "breathtakingly expensive" right now, Birney said.

Researchers used five different kinds of digital information to show that their method would work to preserve a variety of media in DNA. These included a text file with William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, a PDF of a scientific paper, a photo in JPEG format of the European Bioinformatics Institute, and an MP3 audio excerpt of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Scientists showed that they could encode these files in DNA and then, by sequencing the DNA, reconstruct them with 100% accuracy.

So how would your digital files translate into DNA?

Text on your computer, while it may look like words, is actually encoded in your computer as ones and zeros - this is called binary. For the purposes of DNA synthesis, scientists took that information and converted it to base 3 – that is, zeroes, ones and twos.

From there, the data gets translated into collections of DNA’s nucleic acid bases, represented by the letters A, C, G and T.

That’s how scientists encode the DNA fragments. 

This is not the first study of its kind. In 2012, George Church of Harvard University and colleagues published a paper in the journal Science describing their own strategy for DNA storage. That research group operated independently from the British scientists.

One distinguishing factor in the new study is error correction, Goldman said. Built into their method are measures that adjust for possible errors in translating the digital material into DNA and back again.

An example is that the translation method in Goldman's study does not allow for identical letters of DNA to be next to each other - in other words, there are no instances of "AA" in the final DNA code, since this kind of repetition could cause errors, Birney said. They also encode the same piece of information multiple times in different ways in the DNA, in case something goes wrong.

DNA has the advantage of being light and small, researchers said. One of Shakespeare’s sonnets would weigh 0.3 picograms (10^-12) grams, said Nick Goldman, lead study author.

A small test tube holds about a petabyte – a billion megabytes – of data. DNA storing this much information is about as big as the space between the top two joints of your little finger, Goldman said.

“A gram of DNA would hold the same information as a bit over a million compact discs,” Goldman said. “Your storage options are: one thing a bit smaller than your little finger, or a million CDs.”

Given DNA's small size and long endurance, according to Goldman and Birney, the method could be used to propagate information about our current selves thousands of years into the future - assuming, of course, our descendants in the year 4013 understand languages as we speak and write them today.

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. javelin

    Thats interesting. I wonder if science one day will show that the idea of a being such as God may not be a fantastic out of this world idea as some think it is.

    January 23, 2013 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ER

      Science has already proven that their COULD be a God ... but the chances are so small it is not even worth thinking about the possibility.

      January 23, 2013 at 15:50 | Report abuse |
    • lol

      Actually ER, scientists have determined that if a god exists he would be unable to influence anything that happens within the universe because he would have to be in a higher dimension.

      January 23, 2013 at 16:06 | Report abuse |
    • phearis

      Actually lol, The Earth has existed for about 4.5-Billion years and religion has only existed for the last 50,000 or so. So if "God" were real, where was he for the first 4.495-Billion years? hmmm?

      January 23, 2013 at 16:54 | Report abuse |
    • stop, please

      actually er, lol, and phearis, scientists have proven none of those things, nor have any rational scientists advocated any of those things. please stop talking out of your @ss and pretending it's science. "through the wormhole" with morgan freedman is not science. also, the word you are looking for is "there" not "their" er.

      January 23, 2013 at 17:26 | Report abuse |
    • Drew

      Theres nothing wrong with saving all the information we as humans have learned and achieved. We would hope that for future generations we can pass down things never to build again, such as WMD's and mistakes learned not to repeat, like the building of robots and Artificial intelligence. For the future existence of mankind this may be a good thing or a bad thing but that is yet to be seen.

      January 23, 2013 at 18:32 | Report abuse |
    • Seyedibar

      Science will never be able to prove the existence of gods, but history, etymology, and anthropology have already disproven every holy book and religious claim that we know of.

      January 23, 2013 at 18:43 | Report abuse |
  2. Larry

    Here's an idea...Take your photos with actual film and print them on actual silver halide photo paper in a darkroom! They'll last a lot longer than any current digital format. How do you think we still have photos from the civil war era?

    January 23, 2013 at 15:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • lol

      did you not see the part about 60-500 years, yea those pictures are old but not that old nor would they last more than 500 years.

      January 23, 2013 at 16:08 | Report abuse |
    • SixDegrees

      Archivally processed black and white prints have a lifespan of maybe a couple hundred years before degradation becomes noticeable. Photography as an art form is only a bit over a century old; many older prints have already degraded beyond recognition, and this problem will become severe in upcoming decades.

      January 23, 2013 at 16:59 | Report abuse |
    • cjacja

      Not really true. As of today (2013) there are not really old photos, nothing like 2,000 years an d most 100+ year old photos we have look pretty bad. "Cloud Storage" might keep digital data for a LONG time. This method replicates the data and keeps in on servers spread out all over the world. It might even survive world war three. The trouble is the passwords used to encrpt this data will be forgotten and then the bits become worthless

      DNA might work but "access" is hard. If I want photo number DSC135432.jpg which stand of DNA do I pull up and where on the strand is the file? Can I get to it in a millisecond? I can not imagine how DNA could be read very fast if you used a lot of energy to speed up the process you'd break it.

      So far the best we have are stones. We can shape the stones into blocks, use then tobuild a building and carve letters into the stone walls. This technology is know to last for thousands of years. Nothing else is proven.

      January 23, 2013 at 19:54 | Report abuse |
  3. Chuck

    Amazing. Simply amazing.

    January 23, 2013 at 15:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • John Clark

      Don't underestimate Google!

      January 23, 2013 at 21:40 | Report abuse |
  4. TallyChick

    Pretty cool but how would this work in the general population? How would people be able to take the information stored on a strand of DNA and view it? DNA reading super tablets and laptops?? I wonder how long it would take to figure that out. Still...very interesting to read about!

    January 23, 2013 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. The Eternal Satyr

    It seems to me that we could do so much more if it weren't for our insistence on the use of money. I wonder how much more we could do if money didn't exist. I suspect that money is actually more of a hindrance to progress than it is a means to achieve it.

    How long will it take to rewrite human DNA so that we will no longer need to be so primitive and apelike?

    January 23, 2013 at 16:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • cjacja

      If money did not exist, how else to do this kind of work. With money we can in effect give a scientist a means to eat and pay the rent even if he lives far away. Things like money, communications and transportation are what enables technology.

      Money also enable specialization. For example I can study computer science and don't have to learn how to make steel from iron ore because I can trade money for my work with his work.

      January 23, 2013 at 19:59 | Report abuse |
  6. Andres

    Mutant DNA!

    January 23, 2013 at 16:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Marshall

    Hmm. I wonder if there is already something like this encoded in our DNA. A nice message from our ancestors. 😉

    January 23, 2013 at 16:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. huh-ho

    If computer virus get in DNA then will it grow a monster?

    January 23, 2013 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. CountryBoy

    This just in, they decided to forgo freezing Shakespearean DNA. Instead, scientists will now attempt to insert the DNA into the brains of chimpanzees and sit them at keyboards. Results pending.

    January 23, 2013 at 17:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Dr Bix

    Sir Francis Bacon would be proud of this....

    January 23, 2013 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. jimmy

    Uhh...don't we already have something called optical disk storage (ie DVD, Blu-ray, CD) which require no electricity and if also stored in a 'Cool Dry Place' (along with lots of DX7s) would last FOREVER not just thousands of years.

    January 23, 2013 at 18:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • cjacja

      Yes. But read the pat where they say a few milliliters of DNA holds as much as a million CDs. It comes down to the size of the bits. The pits on an optical disc must b "large" compared to the wavelength o light. But DNA works are a scale that is way smaller then light. So in "better" units a teaspon of DNA hold the same as a large garage of CDs or DVDs.

      But worse. The CD or DVD has a "short" life. CDR will be gone in 10 years the pressed ones in maybe 100 years. No one expects and optical disc to last 1,000 years.

      All that said DNA storage is not really practical, just a good experiment.

      January 23, 2013 at 20:06 | Report abuse |
    • chubby rain

      In addition to the size of the DNA molecules, most digital devices are binary (1s and 0s), where DNA has 4 possibilities at each residue (A, G, C, and T).

      For example, 8 bits can represent 256 (2^8) possibilities. 8 DNA residues can represent 65536 (4^8 or 2^16) possibilities.

      January 23, 2013 at 20:36 | Report abuse |
  12. Sweetp Moore

    I think it be wise to find a reletive of William Shakespere and test the DNA to see if it was him who really wrote all the writings of these story's everyone has so charished over the years. I own a piece of history from our family that is as old as this and you may find we are more related to the actual writer then William, I have a book that was handed down to me that would actually change the course of History. " Will Shakspere and the Dyer's Hand "... A copy of which was given to us back in 1937 and tells a different but close story to that which everyone now knows. It was printed this way to keep the real secret of the original book's, from from The South Park Play House District and of Winchester House, Where Edward Dyer the first his residence was in the same or near the place where William Shakspere also resided... Do the home work?

    January 23, 2013 at 18:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      You are so full of what comes out of a cow's anus, it's not even amusing.

      January 23, 2013 at 18:33 | Report abuse |
    • cjacja

      So you own a secret book that will change history. Why not show it to someone?

      January 23, 2013 at 20:10 | Report abuse |
    • Zigs

      You understand it is not actually his DNA, right?

      January 24, 2013 at 13:10 | Report abuse |
  13. Capt. Kirk

    Oh, the places we'll go!

    January 23, 2013 at 18:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Padmanabham

    Science and technology are growing at a faster pace that is throwing humans off the tracks from ethics and morals . Humans are unable to control their urge to use science and technology for greed instead of using for society's interest.

    January 23, 2013 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hahahahahahaha

      You're funny. Since when have humans had ethics and morals? Hahahahahahahahah

      January 24, 2013 at 16:09 | Report abuse |
  15. Jerry

    They actually used this method to look for hidden data in normal Human DNA and, there in the middle, it said "So, a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah walk into a bar......"

    January 23, 2013 at 18:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LeftyCoaster

      Indeed. And if the Intelligent Designer had a mischievous sense of humor, he/she would put the punchline in another creature's DNA.

      January 23, 2013 at 19:52 | Report abuse |
    • Jerry

      The platypus, perhaps?

      January 24, 2013 at 00:39 | Report abuse |
  16. SoCal Reggae


    January 23, 2013 at 18:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Dondi Cook

    Sorta sounds like reinventing the wheel... :http://www.crystalskulls.com/ Or rather, Re-Discovering what's included in the apt description givin about the newness of anything. Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 "1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? 4 One generation passeth away , and another generation cometh : but the earth abideth for ever. 5 The sun also ariseth , and the sun goeth down , and hasteth to his place where he arose . 6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually , and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come , thither they return again . 8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing , nor the ear filled with hearing . 9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done : and there is no new thing under the sun. 10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said , See , this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after. 12 I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. 14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. 15 That which is crooked cannot be made straight : and that which is wanting cannot be numbered . 16 I communed with mine own heart, saying , Lo, I am come to great estate , and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. 17 And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. 18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.


    January 23, 2013 at 18:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dondi Cook

      I might note though that even though He views such persuits frivolous, He dosen't say that He ever quit trying to learn more...

      January 23, 2013 at 19:03 | Report abuse |
  18. jdoe

    Soon they'll be able to create living things from artificial DNA, a completely new life form that can recite Shakespeare's works at will.

    January 23, 2013 at 18:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LeftyCoaster

      And quote MLK, in his exact tenor and cadence.

      January 23, 2013 at 19:54 | Report abuse |
  19. ditdotdit

    Sounds like a winner to me. Where can I buy a DNA reader? I can't find one in our local stores.

    January 23, 2013 at 19:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. David Thelen

    I read a report where they found something that turned current medical wisdom onto its head. They found those who were obese confirmed that those people passed away the earliest. However, they found those who were a little overweight lived the longest than those who were at ideal weight. I can confirm this study is true for those who have had cancer and the chemo it brings.
    I had cancer back in 2000 and had 6 treatments of chemo. I was overweight, in fact near obesity, according to my MCI numbers. I have been cancer free ever since.
    Unfortunately, my dear younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. I believe it was in 2003. She was not overweight at all. She was well within the ideal BMI. She passed away in 2009 after several bouts of chemo.
    Did my weight level (my BMI) help me conquer cancer; whereas my sister's (BMI) level did not? But why?
    Can you researchers find if that those who are a little overweight have higher survival rate from cancer than that of those who have ideal weight? If so, can different chemo be applied to those who are at ideal BMI than those who are a little overweight? Or can something be added to the chemo that those who are a little overweight possess than those who are at ideal weight?
    I see they are creating the exact match chemo based upon a persons DNA to obtain higher desired results. Does being a little overweight create a different protein strand within the DNA that may react differently to a certain chemo? If so, can they create this difference to the chemo so to obtain higher desired results based upon a persons weight?

    January 24, 2013 at 08:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. MyBossIsAJerk

    My boss' DNA must be all Zeros!!!!!!!

    January 24, 2013 at 16:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. dna11

    Dr. Gupta – On a somewhat related note you may be interested in what one of my companies DNA 11 is doing with DNA. We actually create art from a sample of your DNA. This is one of the most personalized art pieces imaginable. We call them DNA Portraits. You can see them at http://www.dna11.com if you're interested in learning more.

    January 24, 2013 at 18:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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