DNA: Digitally Designed
We live in uncertain and frightening times.
There seems to be no end to the serious risks confronting humanity. In fact, in 2014, USA Today published an article identifying the 10 greatest threats facing our world:
- Fiscal crises in key economies
- Structurally high unemployment/underemployment
- Water crises
- Severe income disparity
- Failure to climate change mitigation and adaptation
- Greater incidence of extreme weather events (e.g., floods, storms, fires)
- Global governance failure
- Food crises
- Failure of a major financial mechanism/institution
- Profound political and social instability
If this list isn’t bad enough, another crisis looms in our near future: a data storage crisis.
Thanks to the huge volume of scientific data generated by disciplines such as genomics and the explosion of YouTube videos, 44 trillion gigabytes of digital data currently exist in the world. To put this in context, each person in a worldwide population of 10 billion people would have to store over 6,000 CDs to house this data. Estimates are that if we keep generating data at this pace, we will run out of high-quality silicon needed to make data storage devices by 2040.1
Compounding this problem are the limitations of current data storage technology. Because of degradative processes, hard disks have a lifetime of about 3 years and magnetic tapes about 10 years. These storage systems must be kept in controlled environments—which makes data storage an expensive proposition.
Digital Data Storage in DNA
Because of DNA’s role as a biochemical data storage system (in which the data is digitized), researchers are exploring the use of this biomolecule as the next-generation digital data storage technology. As proof of principle, a team of researchers from Harvard University headed up by George Church coded the entire contents of a 54,000-word book (including 11 JPEG images) into DNA fragments.
The researchers chose to encode the book’s contents into small DNA fragments—devoting roughly two-thirds of the sequence for data and the remainder for information that can be used to locate the content within the entire data block. In this sense, their approach is analogous to using page numbers to order and locate the contents of a book.
Since then, researchers have encoded computer programs, operating systems, and even movies into DNA.
Because DNA is so highly optimized to store information, it is an ideal data storage medium. (For details regarding the optimal nature of DNA’s structure, see The Cell’s Design.) Researchers think that DNA has the capacity to store data near the theoretical maximum. About one-half pound of DNA can store all the data that exists in the world today.
Limitations of DNA Data Storage
Despite its promises, there are some significant technical hurdles to overcome before DNA can serve as a data storage system. Cost and time are two limitations. It is expensive and time-consuming to produce and read the synthetic DNA used to store information. As technology advances, the cost and time requirements associated with DNA data storage will likely improve. Still, because of these limitations, most technologists think that the best use of DNA will be for archival storage of data.
Another concern is the long-term stability of DNA. Over time, DNA degrades. Researchers believe that redundancy may be one way around this problem. By encoding the same data in multiple pieces of DNA, data lost because of DNA degradation can be recovered.
The processes of making and reading synthetic DNA also suffer from error. Current technology has an error rate of 1 in 100. Recently, researchers from Columbia University achieved a breakthrough that allows them to elegantly address loss of information from DNA due to degradation or miscoding that takes place when DNA is made and read. These researchers successfully applied techniques used for “noisy communication” operations to DNA data storage.2
With these types of advances, the prospects of using DNA to store digital data may soon become a reality. And unlike other data storage technologies, DNA will never become obsolete.
Biomimetics and Bioinspiration
The use of biological designs to drive technological advance is one of the most exciting areas in engineering. This area of study—called biomimetics and bioinspiration—presents us with new reasons to believe that life stems from a Creator. As the names imply, biomimetics involves direct copying (or mimicry) of designs from biology, whereas bioinspiration relies on insights from biology to guide the engineering enterprise. DNA’s capacity to inspire engineering efforts to develop new data storage technology highlights this biomolecule’s elegant, sophisticated design and, at the same time, raises a troubling question for the evolutionary paradigm.
The Converse Watchmaker Argument
Biomimetics and bioinspiration pave the way for a new type of design argument I dub the converse Watchmaker argument: If biological designs are the work of a Creator, then these systems should be so well-designed that they can serve as engineering models and otherwise inspire the development of new technologies.
At some level, I find the converse Watchmaker argument more compelling than the classical Watchmaker analogy. It is remarkable to me that biological designs can inspire engineering efforts.
It is even more astounding to think that biomimetics and bioinspiration programs could be so successful if biological systems were truly generated by an unguided, historically contingent process, as evolutionary biologists claim.
Biomimetics and Bioinspiration: The Challenge to the Evolutionary Paradigm
To appreciate why work in biomimetics and bioinspiration challenge the evolutionary paradigm, we need to discuss the nature of the evolutionary process.
Evolutionary biologists view biological systems as the outworking of unguided, historically contingent processes that co-opt preexisting designs to cobble together new systems. Once these designs are in place, evolutionary mechanisms can optimize them, but still, these systems remain—in essence—kludges.
Most evolutionary biologists are quick to emphasize that evolutionary processes and pathways seldom yield perfect designs. Instead, most biological designs are flawed in some way. To be certain, most biologists would concede that natural selection has produced biological designs that are well-adapted, but they would maintain that biological systems are not well-designed. Why? Because evolutionary processes do not produce biological systems from scratch, but from preexisting systems that are co-opted through a process dubbed exaptation and then modified by natural selection to produce new designs. Once formed, these new structures can be fine-tuned and optimized through natural selection to produce well-adapted designs, but not well-designed systems.
If biological systems are, in effect, kludged together, why would engineers and technologists turn to them for inspiration? If produced by evolutionary processes—even if these processes operated over the course of millions of years—biological systems should make unreliable muses for technology development. Does it make sense for engineers to rely on biological systems—historically contingent and exapted in their origin—to solve problems and inspire new technologies, much less build an entire subdiscipline of engineering around mimicking biological designs?
Using biological designs to guide engineering efforts seems to be fundamentally incompatible with an evolutionary explanation for life’s origin and history. On the other hand, biomimetics and bioinspiration naturally flow out of an intelligent design/creation model approach to biology. Using biological systems to inspire engineering makes better sense if the designs in nature arise from a Mind.
The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry by Fazale Rana (book)
“iDNA: The Next Generation of iPods?” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Harvard Scientists Write the Book on Intelligent Design—in DNA” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Digital and Analog Information Housed in DNA” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Engineer’s Muse: The Design of Biochemical Systems” by Fazale Rana (article)
- Andy Extance, “How DNA Could Store All the World’s Data,” Nature 537 (September 2, 2016): 22–24, doi:10.1038/537022a.
- Yaniv Erlich and Dina Zielinski, “DNA Fountain Enables a Robust and Efficient Storage Architecture,” Science 355 (March 3, 2017): 950–54, doi:10.1126/science.aaj2038.