Thursday, January 09, 2003
Article in the Guardian on the digital dark age -- the way that the things we backed our data up onto are obsolete. (And I have drawers filled with old 5 and 1/2 inch disks, and tape-back-ups that I have nothing I could play them with to retrieve the information on them....)

There's a potential solution of course, over at New Scientist -- encoding information in bacteria.

The scientists took the words of the song It's a Small World and translated it into a code based on the four "letters" of DNA. They then created artificial DNA strands recording different parts of the song. These DNA messages, each about 150 bases long, were inserted into bacteria such as E. coli and Deinococcus radiodurans.

The latter is especially good at surviving extreme conditions, says Wong. It can tolerate high temperatures, desiccation, ultraviolet light and ionising radiation doses 1000 times higher than would be fatal to humans.

The beginning and end of each inserted message have special DNA tags devised by the scientists. These "sentinels" stop the bacteria from identifying the message as an invading a virus and destroying it, says Wong.

"The magic of the sentinel is that it protects the information, so that even after a hundred bacterial generations we were able to retrieve the exact message," says Wong. "Once the DNA message is in bacteria, it is protected and can survive." And as a millilitre of liquid can contain up to billion bacteria, the potential capacity of such a memory system is enormous.

I find the idea of people being infected by "It's a Small World After All" deeply disturbing.

But a world in which you could catch the complete works of Dickens, or Kipling's "The Gardener" or Dangerous Visions might be rather interesting. ("We've done all the tests, Mr Brown, and I'm afraid you seem to have a rather nasty case of Huckleberry Finn.")