There’s an equal number of genetics and Shakespeare credits on my undergrad transcript. You’ll also find a dog-eared copy of the Bard’s complete works on the same shelf as my stack of old lab notebooks, both sporting mild coffee damage. As a result, I am irrationally excited about the European Bioinformatics Institute’s newest scheme: to translate the world’s most celebrated collection of sonnets into the universal language of life.
The story starts, as most good stories do, with two scientists in a bar. Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney were discussing the growing difficulty of managing their institution’s ever-increasing archive of genetic information. With the advent of next-generation sequencing technologies, genetic databases are exploding at mind-blowing rates. Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, budgets can’t quite keep up with the technology. Oftentimes the most elegant solutions are also the most simple. And where scientists are concerned, they often involve beer. In any case, after a couple of rounds, the pair of British bioinformaticians realized that the answer was staring them in the face: DNA.
Our entire being is coded in DNA. In fact, the entire biotic universe is coded in DNA. More stable and compact than any hard drive conceivable by man, DNA is a molecule that’s evolved over billions of years to encipher unfathomable complexity. As far as storage possibilities go, it’s nigh unbeatable. Goldman and Birney had the answer. Now all they needed was a method to convert genetic material into digital code.
DNA consists of four nucleotides – A, G, T, and C – that code all the world’s genetic information while digital files store data as a string of 1s and 0s. Every letter in the alphabet has its own eight-digit binary sequence. Goldman and Birney simply created their own code using DNA. They assigned a sequence of five nucleotides to each letter in the alphabet thereby enabling words to be translated back and forth between DNA and binary.
In order to test their theory, the scientists converted all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets into their newly created DNA code, letter by letter. They emailed the file to Agilent, a US-based company that manufactures specific synthetic DNA sequences de novo. What they got in return was a single test tube containing a teeny tiny drop of clear liquid. Goldman and Birney sequenced the dropful of DNA and, lo and behold, were able to re-read all 154 of Bill’s poems.
What does this mean for us mere mortals?
Since the dawn of consciousness human beings have been looking for answers. We’re a narcissistic bunch, always wanting to know more and more about what makes us tick, what makes us special. The fact is, a lot of those mysteries will unravel with the double helix. DNA isn’t going anywhere. We will always want to read it and it will always be the same. Technologies will come and go, sequencers will become more powerful than contemporary humans can imagine, but those four letters are immortal. What we’ve got here is the embryo of future information storage. The best part is, unlike computers – whose hard drives have a life span of a mere five to ten years, and which inexplicably malfunction when I am in the vicinity – DNA will sit tight for as long as you want it to. Tens of thousands of years in fact. Maybe millions. Maybe even longer.
And isn’t it poetic when you think about it? What better way to record the human experience than in our own biological language? It makes sense that Shakespeare’s sonnets were among the first works to be immortalized in this manner. For me that captures the spirit of the project, a timeless vehicle for timeless works. Thanks to Goldman and Birney, 16th century sonnets will be available to 60th century poets.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Then are dreamt of in your philosophy”