60-Second Science

Message In A Bottle Of DNA

Researchers have hit upon a system for safely storing information in DNA that involves multiple copies of the message inserted into the genome of a common bacterium.

DNA is already a data storage vehicle, perhaps the world’s oldest, in fact.  A gene can be thought of as coded data that can be translated by cellular machinery to make a functional protein.  Researchers have long considered the possibility of coding text as DNA.  So that a string of nucleic acids might represent the Gettysburg Address, or the locations of secret agents around the world.  In theory, it’s easy.  Just assign groups of nucleic acids to represent individual letters.  Then synthesize a strand of DNA that codes for “four score and seven years ago.”  But safeguarding against degradation, and being able to recover the data remain important issues. Now, Japanese scientists have come up with a technique that might help solve those problems.  They’ll report on it in April in the journal Biotechnology Progress.  The basic idea is redundancy.  Synthesize many copies of the message, and insert those all over the genome of a bacterium.  To recover the data, search the genome for multiple copies of a string of DNA and see what pops up.  The researchers did that with a common soil bacterium and the message E=mc2.  The system worked well.  Relatively.

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