Scientists are starting to use DNA to write computer code. They fancy themselves as designers of a system. What does this imply about the natural genetic code?
It’s “totally rad,” announced a press release from Stanford School of Medicine: “Scientists from Stanford’s Department of Bioengineering have devised a method for repeatedly encoding, storing and erasing digital data within the DNA of living cells.” After 3 years of work and 750 tries, they found a way to create and erase digital code using DNA molecules.
They’re not using the A-G-C-T bases that the natural genetic code uses to store information. Instead, they use the way a portion of DNA points as the equivalent of a bit: one way indicates a one, the other indicates a zero. It’s rad because they named it that: Recombinase Addressable Data (RAD). It offers the power to use DNA as non-volatile memory and a molecular “switch” to turn on fluorescent proteins in microbes.
This work, however, involves a seamless overlap with natural genetic code. First, the scientists are using living microbes. Second, they plan to use it for biological engineering. Third, they believe their work “might impact our understanding of and interaction with life.” One researcher said, “Programmable data storage within the DNA of living cells would seem an incredibly powerful tool for studying cancer, aging, organismal development and even the natural environment.”
Moreover, the original paper in PNAS1 speaks of genetic material as a “natural data storage medium”. Their new system works in conjunction with the natural genetic code and can survive 100 cell divisions; in other words, it is an artificial code working alongside a natural code.
This leads to a totally rad question: If a researcher without foreknowledge of this technology examined a microbe employing it, would he or she be justified in inferring that an intelligent cause played a role in its origin? If so, what’s the difference with inferring an intelligent case for the origin of the “natural” genetic code, since it also involves the encoding and storage of functional information?
1. Bonnet, Substoontorn and Endy, “Rewritable digital data storage in live cells via engineered control of recombination directionality,” PNAS May 21, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1202344109 (open access).