Sunday, 15 December 2013

Knowledge Under the Skin

Knowledge Under the Skin

What would happen if so much of the world’s knowledge was encoded onto a few cells of DNA, and that DNA was added or spliced with a normal person’s DNA along with the inherent instructions and commands for retrieving the data required at will? Could, one day, we have the ability to learn by internally accessing our own DNA, sequencing the information required and therefore bypassing the process of having to sit down in a classroom or read a book to learn? The stuff of science fiction at the moment, and me knowing practically nothing about how DNA works and how encoded data could be stored and retrieved virtually instantaneously makes it all seem a very distant dream, if it were ever to happen at all.

Imagine, knowing all the chemical elements without having to lift a book, or being capable of long division in your head without access to a calculator, learning a language, or perhaps something as artful of being able to lift a guitar, never having held one before, and playing a rift by Jimmy Hendrix note for note. What could one do when all the knowledge you may ever desire can be stored on a piece of DNA, and that DNA alongside your own with the instructions for access and retrieval stored within? How much knowledge is retainable, when just 4 grams of DNA can store all the knowledge humanity creates in a year?

Well, not all science is fiction, and science that was previously fiction, has a habit, over time, to become science fact, and whether you have trepidation of such things, or wonder at what impossibilities can be done with the advance of science, the one true fact is that the process is now underway, and the initial stages have begun, and have been proven to work.

"Researchers who have used the biomolecule to encode MP3s, text files, and JPEGs say it will be a competitive storage medium in just a few decades.
"Researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, U.K., have demonstrated a new method for reliably encoding several common computer file formats this way. As the price of sequencing and synthesizing DNA continues to drop, the researchers estimate, this biological storage medium will be competitive within the next few decades." (source)

So, it appears the fiction is rapidly becoming fact as far as storing data on DNA. The fact the information is on a piece of a biological entity, rather than saved on a roll of digital tape or a memory stick is by the by, the information is there and it is accessible, and as times passes, the process will become simpler, cheaper, and more reliable.  It was first proven by George Church and his colleagues at Harvard in 2012. Later, improved by researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in 2013, when appearing as a speck of dust, over five million bits of data, consisting of audio and text files, were successfully stored and retrieved. The information included 154 Shakespeare sonnets, Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech, and a paper by James Watson and Francis Crick on the structure of DNA. More can be read here.

Of course, storing and retrieving data is one thing, replacing the micro SD card in your phone with a few grams of DNA isn’t all that ingenuous when to read and write and retrieve that data requires the hardware in the phone also for that precise task. What size may the phone be then? Perhaps not so mobile. But who knows what tomorrow will bring, and if the hardware for this data read write and retrieval can be shrunk to such a size as would be embeddable in a mobile phone without too much inconvenience in additional weight and size, how long after that before thoughts of skipping the stage of the mobile phone and somehow embedding both the data and retrieval methods within a body that could be more directly and instantaneously accessed by the brain.

Not many can earn the title the Human Computer, such as Shakuntala Devi, an Indian writer and mental calculator, but imagine having her genius at hand within yourself with a flip of a thought. What the human mind can accomplish alone, even with such talent, can be a mere drop in the ocean though, to what a compendium of knowledge accessible with the speed of a firing synapse could be. Imagine a group of already bright scientists working together then, what more knowledge and innovation would be possible? Is this the future, and how long will it take to get there? We can only wait and see. Perhaps tomorrow there will be no more exams, only a need to upgrade your DNA.

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