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Scientists write first book in DNA

August 20, 2012|by Carolyn Kellogg
  • DNA code on display at Japan's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo.
DNA code on display at Japan's National Museum of Emerging Science… (MJ/TR via Flickr )

Scientists at Harvard Medical School have created the first-ever book to be written in DNA. And while that book is not exactly a potboiler -- it's "Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA" by George Church and Ed Regis -- there are 17 billion copies of it.

How many books is 17 billion? More than "50 Shades of Grey," "Harry Potter," "The Da Vinci Code," "The Hunger Games," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," the Bible and the works of Charles Dickens and the next hundred-plus most popular books in the world combined -- times three.

Time Magazine reports that Church and his colleague Sriram Kosuri created the DNA-encoded book, in part, to demonstrate how efficient DNA is -- how much information its double helix strands can contain.

"By copying the 53,000 word book (alongside 11 jpeg images and a computer program) they’ve managed to squeeze a thousand times more data than ever previously encoded into strands of DNA, as reported in the August 17 issue of the journal Science," writes Time Magazine's Kharunya Paramaguru. One gram of DNA can hold 455 billion gigabytes; four grams could theoretically contain a year's worth of the entire world's data.

However, while DNA is an efficient storage mechanism, its creation has been a longtime process. “It took a decade to work out the next generation of reading and writing of DNA," Church told Time. "I’ve been working on reading for 38 years, and writing since the '90s."

The translation of the book to DNA was faster, with the help of a computer program. First the book was converted into binary code, and then the binary code was translated into the building blocks of DNA, adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).

The DNA version of the book will not be included when "Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA" comes out in traditional book form in October. It's not exactly a living book -- Church says much more code would be needed for it to function -- but more questions about the nature of a book written in DNA might be explored in the Philosophy section. Or science fiction.

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