The truly useful place to store your files: DNA

One of the strange and marvelous byproducts of genetic matter is that it's an excellent repository for vast amounts of data -- far more than any hard drive can handle.

KhanAcademy/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Science can be rather disheartening.

You sidle up to a potential lover and you're told there's no chemistry. You want to make yourself beautiful for the next potential lover and physics makes your eyes resemble pig buttocks.

And yet, just occasionally, scientific exploration of our biology can turn up a helpful hint that lifts us from our daily pall.

Indeed, my all-too-rare reading of Science magazine has turned up something that for you will be peace of mind and for Amazon will surely be the next great business segment.

For instead of shoving your data onto a hard drive or, perish the pain, into the cloud, you should stick it in some DNA.

I know this sounds complicated, and it is. However, just one teeny milligram of DNA could apparently encode all of the books in the Library of Congress and still have room for all your dog and baby pictures.

You could use your own DNA, of course. But that presents all the problems of human nature. You know, moodiness, changeability, and vast, eternal instability. Ours are soft cells.

However, a team of hardy scientists led by Harvard's George Church, has started to create synthetic DNA that is sturdier.

This cell-free DNA is ejected from an inkjet printer onto a small glass chip. Then, the data is converted from its usual zeroes and ones into DNA language using Google Translate. (Something might have been lost in translation about that last part.)

DNA speaks in letters, rather than numbers -- and only 4 letters at that: A, C, G, and T.

I mentioned this was complicated, didn't I? Did I mention that each tiny chunk of DNA has a sort of digital barcode that identifies its location?

And then there's the other marginal complexity of needing a DNA sequencer (I think I saw those in "Star Trek") and a computer to bring the data back to digital life.

But, still, we're generating seemingly infinite amounts of information every day. Hard drives will soon be unable to cope. Every time Amazon's cloud goes down, the number of strokes and hernias at not being able to watch Netflix leaps toward Mars.

So surely finding new ways to store everything and make it safer and more accessible is a world priority.

Professor Church and his team have already succeeded in inserting a whole book into a tiny piece of DNA. Yes, it was a book authored by Church himself and it had, to quote Science, "a raw error rate of only two errors per million bits."

I understand this means there were a couple of typos and that a few inverted commas got uninverted.

This fascination is all still in early and expensive stages. But wouldn't it be gracious if simpler and more effective ways of data storage could be found -- ones that didn't rely on hard drives or vast pieces of metal beneath the lightning of North Carolina?

 

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