In my previous article, I have written about the proliferation and abundance of data in our world, and the need for novel computing mechanisms, as our current computers may not be able to effectively handle such an influx data coming from the increasing use of digital technologies. This being the case, scientists are coming up with creative and cutting edge solutions to harness these large volumes of data in their quest to forge ahead with innovation. However, in order to do so we must either have novel and more efficient computers, or better ways of working and storing the data. One such breakthrough in data storage was recently developed at Harvard University by a team of researchers that used DNA as the storage material for digital data.
DNA is the building block of life, carrying the genetic material of all life on this planet. Thus, DNA is an exceptionally powerful storage material which has been optimized to store a large volume of information over a span of thousands of years. What if we could leverage it store own digital data in DNA? This is precisely the question researchers lead by a pioneer in the field, George Church, have been gripping with for several years. Using DNA as a storage for digital data may sound like science fiction but with the resent work published in Nature Communications shows that it is not, rather it is reality. In this recently published research scientists have shown that they have figured out a way to encode music from the popular Super Mario Brothers game into 12 synthetics strands of DNA and play it back on the computer.
In order to do this, the researchers used an ingenious trick of using a well known method from the computer chip manufacturing industry and adapting it to DNA sequencing. The method is known as the photolithographic approach, which uses light to induce a chemical change thereby transferring images onto a substrate, or the surface of a material. It is much akin to the working with film in the dark room, where a photographer uses light to expose image. In this case we can think of an image as information captured on film. The advantage of this method is its high precision as the light can be controlled, thereby allowing information encoding at the level of nucleotide base, or the building blocks of DNA. This process can be repeated many times over, which in turn enables the creation of custom made DNA sequencing with high precision. In other words, if we think about the DNA as composed of legos, we can then imagine the infinite possibility of what can be stored in using this method.
This research has the potential to revolutionize computing through interweaving nature with computing. It also sheds light to the high complexity and elegance of nature, which can be used to build more efficient systems.
It is also through this example that we can most clearly see that science is the language of the universe— no scientific discipline exist in silos, rather each serve as a facet of a multifaceted reality, and when combined with can be used to create innovation in the tangible universe. It requires creativity and ingenuity to see how principles from one discipline can be transferred to another much like a translator interprets a piece of work from one language to another, allowing the transfer of knowledge to greater community. In the same way translating the interdisciplinary nature from one discipline to another leads to greater understanding of the universe and our ability to innovate.