I have been meaning to read a book coming out soon called Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. It’s written by Harvard biologist George Church and science writer Ed Regis. Church is doing stunning work on a number of fronts, from creating synthetic microbes to sequencing human genomes, so I definitely am interested in what he has to say. I don’t know how many other people will be, so I have no idea how well the book will do. But in a tour de force of biochemical publishing, he has created 70 billion copies. Instead of paper and ink, or pdf’s and pixels, he’s used DNA.
Much as pdf’s are built on a digital system of 1s and 0s, DNA is a string of nucleotides, which can be one of four different types. Church and his colleagues turned his whole book–including illustrations–into a 5.27 MB file–which they then translated into a sequence of DNA. They stored the DNA on a chip and then sequenced it to read the text. The book is broken up into little chunks of DNA, each of which has a portion of the book itself as well as an address to indicate where it should go. They recovered the book with only 10 wrong bits out of 5.27 million. Using standard DNA-copying methods, they duplicated the DNA into 70 billion copies.
Scientists have stored little pieces of information in DNA before, but Church’s book is about 1,000 times bigger. I doubt anyone would buy a DNA edition of Regenesis on Amazon, since they’d need some expensive equipment and a lot of time to translate it into a format our brains can comprehend. But the costs are crashing, and DNA is a far more stable medium than that hard drive on your desk that you’re waiting to die. In fact, Regenesis could endure for centuries in its genetic form. Perhaps librarians of the future will need to get a degree in biology…
Photo by Today is a good day – via Creative Commons