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Is DNA the Key to Preventing a Digital Dark Age?

Posted on Thu, Feb 26, 2015 @ 03:00 PM

The image accompanying this post is of the Phaistos Disk. It was created in about 2000 BCE in Crete. Its front and back surfaces are covered with nearly perfectly preserved etchings, but we don't have much of a clue about what it all means. Why does this matter? It matters because the photos, data, research, and other information that matters to us today barely has a chance of lasting 2 decades, much less 2 millennia. Crete_-_Phaistos_disk_-_side_A

Experts, including Vint Cerf who is widely credited as the "father of the internet" and who is now Google's Vice President and Chief Evangelist, believe that much of the information that distinguishes the 21st century is at risk of being lost to future generations. A gaping chasm in humankind's understanding of our era could be called a digital dark age. 

So how would this happen?

The 21st century could become a victim of its own remarkable technological advancement. We've made tremendous progess in data storage over the past few decades. The smartphone in your pocket, for instance, holds far more data than did PCs from even a decade ago, and the price of that storage has fallen dramatically. However, the ability to hold onto that data for -- in optimal cases -- more than twenty years is incredibly rare, and even when the data is pristine, it's not always easy to make sense of it. If you've stumbled upon a cache of floppy disks recently, it is unlikely that your current computer can do anything with them. 

We write about DNA quite a bit on this blog. We haven't talked about it much beyond its ability to offer us clues into human health. But what if genetic material was the key -- or at least a key -- to ensuring that future generations understand the life sciences and healthcare landscape in the 21st century?

Today, big data offers a great deal of promise for improving the human condition: from capturing and decoding health data to understanding and leveraging financial markets. Of course our descendants will have taken our abilities to use data far beyond our wildest imaginations, but if we don't tackle our storage problems, there could be big gaps in their knowledege of how they arrived at their own innovation. 

DNA is an excellent storage medium with tremendous capacity, and  silica-encased genetic material can be used to  "fossilize" non-genetic data. According to an article in New Scientist: 

"Just 1 gram... is theoretically capable of holding 455 exabytes – enough for all the data held by Google, Facebook and every other major tech company, with room to spare. It's also incredibly durable: [it] has been extracted and sequenced from 700,000-year-old horse bones. But conditions have to be right for it to last."

The idea is not untested. In 2012, pop band OK Go began working with a UCLA biochemist named Sri Kosuri to release their 2014 album Hungry Ghosts on DNA. Previously, Kosuri used the same medium to store a book written by one of his colleagues. Granted, there is no way to listen the the album in the DNA format, but the music can be sequenced and it's intention understood

While it is extremely promising, DNA is still a very expensive way to keep the 21st century's technological legacy alive. Besides genetic material, Cerf recommends a technique called digital vellum, in which high quality, digital copies (ironic, no?) of hardware and software would be stored in the cloud for posterity. You can view a really interesting talk that Cerf presented at Carnegie Mellon University recently in the video below.

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Tags: Big Data, DNA, health data

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