12 January 2018

Libraries of the future will be made of DNA

The libraries of the future will be made of DNA Jerome de Groot, The Conversation

Translation: Dmitry Ivanov, N+1

The modern world suffers from an overabundance of information, and it does not look like it will grow at a slower pace in the future. Some part of it must be stored, and it is important that it is easy to read from the carrier, and the carrier itself is insensitive to time. An article by Professor Jerome de Groot of the University of Manchester, which the author wrote for the online publication The Conversation, tells how modern scientists solve these problems.

Every second, people send each other six thousand tweets. While you were reading this sentence, 42 thousand tweets were sent. Counting an average of 34 characters per tweet, it turns out 1428,000 characters.

The Worldwidewebsize website evaluates the size of the Internet every day. On the day this article was written, the Internet consisted of 4.59 billion pages and a billion websites. This is the so-called indexed Internet, it does not include the "dark Internet" and private databases.

The Internet can be measured in two ways. You can measure the "content" – in 2014, its volume was estimated at 1024 bytes, or a million exabytes. And you can evaluate the traffic, which is measured in zettabytes. Global traffic recently exceeded one zettabyte, this is the content of 250 billion DVDs.

Let's turn to more familiar media. In 2013, 184,000 books were published in the UK – a world record in terms of the number of inhabitants. Add to this an ever–increasing number of ways to describe each person - DNA sequence, family tree on the Internet, genetic code, bank accounts, online information of all kinds – or scientific data that is produced and used on a global scale, and the amount of information in the world will amaze our imagination. Even the space that most people need to store photos and documents has increased significantly in the last few years.

We belong to a biological species that produces information in huge quantities. The "reading" of accumulated data arrays has led to the emergence of new predictive models of social interaction. Businessmen and government officials are struggling to use these arrays, because it seems to them that by making information more comprehensible and manageable, they will be able to understand, direct and - possibly – control other people better than ever.

But how to store all this information? Today we have ordinary libraries, ordinary archives and bookshelves. The Internet itself is stored on the hard drives of servers around the world, which require a huge amount of energy to cool. Online infrastructure is expensive, energy–intensive and vulnerable, and its durability is still limited – look at "Die Hard - 4", where this plot is played out.

Libraries of the Future

The question of how information will be stored in the future may seem boring, but it is a key one for anyone interested in ways that allow human communities to remember. A good example is family histories in a situation where public archives, such as census data or tax payments, are increasingly becoming available online. Millions of users around the world register on sites like Ancestry or Findmypast to access this information and create online versions of their family trees. This rapid proliferation of information raises ethical questions about the order of access (for example, whether private companies can use open data for profit), as well as how information is stored, how it is managed and how it is used.

We are all interested in what libraries and archives will become in the future, how they can be configured and what will be stored in them – and why. Is it necessary to save every sent tweet? Whenever it is necessary to make a choice about what should be stored, perpetuated, archived, complex discussions arise. Technologies for accessing data, or "reading" information, must be durable, otherwise we will find ourselves in front of a huge array of information that cannot be used.

So, what to do? Today, there are wide discussions all over the world about what information should be stored (including various biobanks full of samples of biological organisms), how it should be stored, where it should be stored (in the Arctic, in various areas of space, under water). Most of these discussions are led by scientists, but some technology companies are also involved. Those who have spent years pondering the processes of memory, perpetuation and archiving – historians and librarians – often remain on the periphery of these discussions.

Nanocrystals and DNA

Many different organizations are exploring physical ways to preserve the information accumulated by mankind. For example, carriers on nickel disks (readable under a microscope) or a barcode applied by a laser to quartz glass have been proposed.

Highly experimental – and still consuming a lot of energy – nanotechnology is looking for a way to record information at an almost molecular level (although the word "record" in relation to them looks very outdated). Information from nanotechnology repositories can be read using advanced microscopy, or chemical reactions already known today, or rather complex processes, such as the transformation of infrared radiation into something "visible" in nanocrystals. Among the most bizarre plans for storing information are a data center on the Moon operating on the basis of flash memory, the delivery of digital content to Mars by private companies or satellites launched into Earth orbit.

But most of the plans discussed today seem to be related to biology. Various scientists are finding out whether DNA can be used to store information – the so-called memory based on nucleic acids.

To do this, the information will need to be "translated" into the letters G, A, T, C, corresponding to the base nucleic acids of DNA. DNA sequences will be formed from them, which can be translated back by sequencing and the original message can be read. Recently, researchers have saved archival-quality music files in the form of DNA with recordings of works by Miles Davis and Deep Purple, as well as a short GIF file.

DNA is durable and increasingly amenable to our efforts to create and read it. Under the necessary conditions, it can be stored for thousands of years. She needs a dark, dry and cold place – and, it seems, quite small.

A significant part of these technologies are still at the very initial stage of their development, but advances in nanotechnology and DNA sequencing indicate that we will see the results of experiments and research of practical value in a few years. There are broader questions about the ethics of such methods of collecting information, as well as the extent to which they will become ubiquitous. Paper publications and, to a large extent, digital media are considered generally accepted and democratic ways of transmitting and storing data. We have yet to see whether future data centers and ways to extract information from them will also be available and who in the coming decades and centuries will have control over the accumulated knowledge and memory of mankind.

Portal "Eternal youth" http://vechnayamolodost.ru

Found a typo? Select it and press ctrl + enter Print version