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Reading and Writing a Book With DNA

Researchers are storing digital information in the form of DNA, but is it practical?

4 min read
Photo: Baris Simsek/iStockphoto
Photo: Baris Simsek/iStockphoto

16 August 2012—Harvard University researchers converted a 53 000-word book into DNA and then read the DNA-encoded book using gene-sequencing technology, the researchers report this week in Science. The project is by far the largest demonstration of digital information storage in DNA and the densest consolidation of data in any medium, the authors say.

There is a clear need for improved long-term storage of massively large data, says George Church, a geneticist at Harvardʼs Wyss Institute and one of the leaders of the research. There is data that we are throwing away or donʼt collect because we canʼt afford to store it, such as video surveillance of public spaces and large research projects, he says. Someday that won’t be necessary. The question is, What will get us there first: electronic or molecular memory?

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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