Friday, August 17, 2012

Writing a book with DNA

Living beings almost exclusively use DNA to store information necessary to produce the building blocks for biological components. We human beings use bits to store data used for a computer. Scientists from Harvard Medical School sought to combine the two, and managed to 'write' an electronic book by encoding it with DNA. It is one of the first practical applications of genetic code as a substitute for bits and bytes.

DNA has four building blocks, which are called A, T, C and G in their abbreviated form. Normally, a strand of building blocks, or bases, is read by molecular machinery inside the cell and used to create proteins from amino acids. The Harvard scientists did things a bit differently, by assigning bit values to the four bases: A and C were given the value 0, while T and G carried the value 1. By doing this, the DNA is basically mimicking ordinary computer language, which uses 0's and 1's.

Writing and reading
In order to write the e-book in DNA, the scientists had to make 54.898 pieces of DNA, each consisting of 159 bases. The book, written by one of the Harvard scientists on the topic of synthetic biology, could then be decoded using a standardized DNA sequencer. Converting the A, T, C and G molecules to their respective 0 and 1 values gave the proper code for a conventional e-book, which are normally written in the computer languages HTML and Javascript.

It is one of the first practical applications showing the capabilities of DNA encoding instead of using conventional bits. While reading DNA sequences is still too slow to be used effectively, using genetic code is of great interest to scientists because information can be packed much denser than conventional means. By showing that it is possible to write an e-book using only DNA, the scientists have shown our genetic code can be practically used outside the body.

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