Filed under: colonizing space, deep time, futurism, Hot Earth Dreams, livable future, Real Science Content, science fiction, Speculation, sustainability | Tags: Interstellar Travel, science fiction, Speculation, sustainability
I came across this little bit when listening to NPR’s On The Media. The episode is entitled “Digital Dark Age” which of course pricked my ears up immediately, as the digital dark age is something I dealt with in Hot Earth Dreams. The whole hour is worth listening to, but the weird idea I wanted to focus on is the idea of using artificially generated DNA for long-term data storage, an idea put forward by Dr. Nate Goldman in this segment.
Superficially, this is a great idea. Dr. Goldman is working on this idea as a way to store the huge amount of genomics data he has to curate at the European Bioinformatics Institute. DNA is pretty stable and information dense, so if it’s possible to cheaply generate long DNA sequences and to cheaply read them, it’s a good form of ROM (Read Only Memory). Dr. Goldman develops this into an idea of caching the great works of civilization in some sort of time capsule that starts by explaining what DNA is and how the code works, then progresses to simple decoding examples, and finally to the whole earth encyclopedia, or whatever is supposed to be in the data cache. DNA is certainly more durable than known electronic digital media and is smaller than durable analog media like baked clay tablets, so superficially it has a lot going for it.
One little problem with this scenario is the idea that it’s easy to generate and read DNA. It’s easy now, but I remember how hard it was even 20 years ago when I was in grad school. This is a new technology. Indeed, Dr. Goldman doesn’t think this technology will be financially viable for another decade or two, although it’s borderline technologically viable now.
Still, DNA ROM works better if we’re talking about a hypothetical sustainable civilization, as opposed to leaving some sort of time capsule for the next civilization 5,000 years from now or whenever. DNA is not the kind of storage medium that will allow people to jump-start civilization from a hidden cache. It’s just too tricky to read and write, even though DNA has demonstrably lasted tens of thousands of years in fossil bones under ideal conditions.
It’s even more suitable when we’re talking about interstellar colonization, where information needs to be stable for thousands of years. Not only can the genomes of potentially useful organisms be stored as DNA, all the other information the starship needs to curate can be stored as DNA as well.
The other little problem with using DNA to store data is that having such technology widely available means that high-level synthetic biology will be available to anybody who wants it. After all, if the equivalent of a laptop can generate as much DNA as your average genome, how many more bits of equipment are needed to twirl that DNA into chromosomes, insert it in a cell, and make a new eukaryotic life form? Letting this kind of technology be available to the public is something that is currently forbidden, at least in current American society. What kind of societal changes would required for people to believe that such technology is safe?
Still, it’s another possible technology for a hypothetical sustainable and starfaring civilization. Perhaps in the future, we’ll have computers that are as much biotech as chips, where spam is something you feed your machine to support its self-repair function, rather than something you delete from your inbox.
Or maybe we should try to baked clay tablet thing…
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