DNA is the building block of life, but in the future it may also be the standard repository for encyclopedias, music and other digital data. Scientists announced yesterday that they successfully converted 739 kilobytes of hard drive data in genetic code and then retrieved the content with 100 percent accuracy.
The researchers began with the computer files from some notable cultural highlights: an audio recording of MLK Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and, appropriately, a copy of Watson and Crick’s original research paper describing DNA’s double helix structure. On a hard drive, these files are stored as a series of zeros and ones. The researchers worked out a system to translate the binary code into one with four characters instead: A, C, G and T. They used this genetic code to synthesize actual strands of DNA with the content embedded in its very structure.
As the 2012 presidential race ramps up, campaigns are courting voters not only at the traditional county fairs and town hall meetings, but online—and generating, in the process, an enormous amount of data about who potential voters are and what they want. At CNN.com, Micah Sifry—an expert on the intersection of technology and politics—delves in the Obama team’s extensive efforts to mine and manage the data in a way that could help them better interact with voters and home in on important issues. He writes:
It’s easy to feel both amazed and utterly overwhelmed by the amount of information that humans have created in the digital age. And now, researchers have calculated a number to go with those feelings. A big one.
As of 2007, humans had the capacity to store 295 exabytes. An exabyte is 1018 bytes. If you think of the gigabytes (a billion bytes) in which your hard drive space might be measured, an exabyte is a billion of those gigabytes. Another size comparison: Astronomers, by necessity, are designing new information processing techniques to help them grapple with the coming age of “petascale” astronomy, because they’re starting to get more information than they can handle. “Exa” is the prefix after “peta”; it’s a thousand times more.
Or, simply, a stack of CDs storing 295 exabytes of information would reach beyond the moon.
Scientists calculated the figure by estimating the amount of data held on 60 analogue and digital technologies during the period from 1986 to 2007. They considered everything from computer hard drives to obsolete floppy discs, and x-ray films to microchips on credit cards. The survey covers a period known as the “information revolution” as human societies transition to a digital age. It shows that in 2000 75% of stored information was in an analogue format such as video cassettes, but that by 2007, 94% of it was digital. [BBC News]