Friday, February 07, 2014

Could archiving answers be in our DNA?

I am looking for disruptive ideas connected with archiving, I stumbled across this article in Last January's TIME magazine. Most of the sound archives I have explored are rotting. The cassettes and vinyl were never designed to store things indefinitely - usually only until something better comes along. May be it is not silicon, but DNA we should be thinking about. After all, DNA is one of the few ways of finding out about the life of dinosaurs. Would love to discover what happened next. 

One night a few years ago, two biologists sat in a bar in Hamburg, discussing DNA. Ewan Birney, the associate director of the European Bioinformatics Institute, and Nick Goldman, a research scientist there, were wondering how to handle the tsunami of data flooding the institute, whose job it is to maintain databases of DNA sequences, protein structures, and other biological information that scientists turn up in their research—databases that are growing exponentially, thanks mostly to dropping costs and increased automation. The maintenance of all this data on hard drives was pressing their budget to the breaking point.
Being genomicists, they joked that DNA, which is incredibly compact, sturdy, and of course has a rather lengthy history of storing data, would be a better way to go. Joking, however, gave way to fevered napkin-scribbling, and soon, recalls Goldman, “We had to order another beer, and call for more napkins to write on.”
Three years later, the results of that bar stool inspiration have been published in Nature, in a paper in which Birney, Goldman and their collaborators report using DNA to store a complete set of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a PDF of the first paper to describe DNA’s double helix structure, a 26-second mp3 clip from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a text file of a compression algorithm, and a JPEG photograph of the institute. You may not be storing your personal data on DNA anytime soon—the process is time-consuming and expensive, and there’s the small matter of needing a DNA sequencer to open the files—but as the costs of making and sequencing DNA continue to plunge and as computer engineering approaches the limits of just how densely information can be encoded on silicon, such biological data storage be just what’s needed for institutes and other organizations with massive archival needs.
I note that these biologists encoded a short mp3 clip as part of the project. I wonder if it had any radio connection. People forget that Heinrich Hertz was born in Hamburg. 

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