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Demonstrating, Once Again, the Fantastic Information-Storage Capacity of DNA


As Jonathan M. pointed out last week, the amazing capacity of DNA is being tapped by new intelligently designed storage technologies.
Now Science spotlights DNA storage with this arresting headline: “Half a Million DVDs in Your DNA.” Gigabytes have become commonplace, and now we’re warming up to terabytes. Ready for petabytes? That’s a thousand terabytes and a million gigabytes. It’s the new lingo that will migrate from geek to street, if DNA hard drives become a reality.
To prove the practicality of DNA storage, a research team in the UK has tripled the previous record, and has shown that not only text can be stored, but images, sound and art as well:

Paleontologists routinely resurrect and sequence DNA from woolly mammoths and other long extinct species. Future paleontologists, or librarians, may do much the same to pull up Shakespeare’s sonnets, listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, or view photos. Researchers in the United Kingdom report today that they’ve encoded these works and others in DNA and later sequenced the genetic material to reconstruct the written, audio, and visual information…
Last year, researchers led by bioengineers Sriram Kosuri and George Church of Harvard Medical School reported that they stored a copy of one of Church’s books in DNA, among other things, at a density of about 700 terabits per gram, more than six orders of magnitude more dense than conventional data storage on a computer hard disk. Now, researchers led by molecular biologists Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Hinxton, UK, report online today in Nature that they’ve improved the DNA encoding scheme to raise that storage density to a staggering 2.2 petabytes per gram, three times the previous effort. (Emphasis added.)

The journal Nature was excited too, saying that this provides an ideal medium for long-term storage of the world’s treasures: “This information should last for millennia under cold, dry and dark conditions.” It was poignant to see an image of an Elizabethan gilded text that was encoded in DNA. How far information technology has come in just a few centuries! PhysOrg said the team’s sample DNA clumps storing the encoded information looked like little bits of dust.
For the BBC News, Jonathan Amos pointed out that the UK team also read back the stored information with 100% accuracy. Calling DNA “perfect for digital storage,” Amos quoted lead researcher Nick Goldman saying that “DNA is a robust and fantastically dense storage medium.” It also does not require electricity or constant maintenance.
Moreover, the team built in some error-protection schemes to ensure robust storage. From PhysOrg:

“We’ve created a code that’s error tolerant using a molecular form we know will last in the right conditions for 10,000 years, or possibly longer,” says Nick Goldman. “As long as someone knows what the code is, you will be able to read it back if you have a machine that can read DNA.”

This is truly a profound achievement of human intelligent design. Why wouldn’t the same be true of natural DNA? A critic of ID theory might say that humans could arrange rocks or sand to store a message and it wouldn’t mean the materials were intelligently designed. True, but the essence of the design is not in the medium, but the message.
And natural DNA does store a message: the genetic code. It’s functional information. Just look at the trouble that can ensue when mutations scramble the information. There’s far more information in our DNA than the UK team embedded in theirs — layers and layers of coding that regulate gene expression and respond interactively to signals in a vast network of complex feedback loops. It’s a whole system of information. To clinch the comparison, natural DNA also has elaborate error correction, proofreading and repair systems that can copy all that information with extremely high fidelity.
As the Shakespearean sonnets in DNA point to intelligent design, the functional information in natural DNA points to intelligent design. It would be foolish to ascribe the superior information to blind, unguided processes. Maybe that’s why none of the articles cited above even mentioned evolution.

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