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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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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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