Storing Sonnets on DNA?

NPR  — English critic Samuel Johnson once said of William Shakespeare “that his drama is the mirror of life.” Now the Bard’s words have been translated into life’s most basic language. British scientists have stored all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets on tiny stretches of DNA.

It all started with two men in a pub. Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman, both scientists from the European Bioinformatics Institute, were drinking beer and discussing a problem.

Their institute manages a huge database of genetic information: thousands and thousands of genes from humans and corn and pufferfish. That data — and all the hard drives and the electricity used to power them — is getting pretty expensive.”The data we’re being asked to be guardians of is growing exponentially,” Goldman says. “But our budgets are not growing exponentially.”

It’s a problem faced by many large companies with expanding archives. Luckily, the solution was right in front of the researchers — they worked with it every day. “We realized that DNA itself is a really efficient way of storing information,” Goldman says.

DNA is nature’s hard drive, a permanent record of genetic information written in a chemical language. There are just four letters in DNA’s alphabet — the four nucleotides commonly abbreviated as A, C, G and T.

When these letters are arranged in different ways, they spell out different instructions for our cells. Some 3 billion of those letters make up the human genome — the entire instruction manual for our existence. And all that information is stuffed into each cell in our bodies. DNA is millions of times more compact than the hard drive in your computer.

The challenge before Goldman and his colleagues was to make DNA store a digital file instead of genetic information. “So over a second beer, we started to write on napkins and sketch out some details of how that might be made to work,” Goldman says.

They started with a text file of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In the computer’s most basic language, it existed as a series of zeroes and ones. With a simple cipher, the scientists translated these zeroes and ones into the letters of DNA.

And then they did the same for the rest of Shakespeare’s sonnets, an audio clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and a picture of their office. They sent that code off to Agilent Technologies, a biotech company. Agilent synthesized the DNA and mailed it back to Goldman. (01/27/13)

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