1998’s Mezzanine was one of the legendary albums of Massive Attack; its single release “Teardrop” became a worldwide hit. To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, the British trip hop band will now have its album archived in DNA for eternity, using technology developed at ETH Zurich. Robert Grass, professor at the Laboratory for Functional Materials Engineering at ETH Zurich, claims this form of data storage enables archiving ‘for centuries or millennia.’
First, Grass and his colleague Reinhard Heckel, a former ETH researcher now at Rice University, translated the digital soundtrack to genetic code: while information is stored on an optical medium or hard drive in a sequence of zeros and ones, biology saves genetic information in a sequence of the four DNA building blocks A, C, G, and T. To make a data set of this size manageable, they compressed the music file to 15MB using Opus technology, a compression method qualitatively superior to, say, popular mp3.
A U.S. company currently manufactures 920,000 short DNA molecules that store all the data of Mezzanine. These molecules are then infused into 5,000 nanometer-sized globuli by Zurich company Turbobeads, an ETH Zurich spin-off. The nanoparticle beads may be preserved in a small vial as a dispersion in water with virtually unlimited durability.
It is possible to extract the DNA from those beads anytime and read the music file saved on it by means of DNA sequencing in order to play it on a digital device. Although the method for this is rather involved, millions of copies of the information can be made at minimal expense once it is stored.
Grass and Heckel developed the technology three years ago. At that time, ETH scientists immortalized, as a kind of proof of feasibility, the text of the Federal Charter of 1291, a foundational document of the Swiss Confederation, in DNA. Now their method is used commercially as well. The music album by Massive Attack is the second largest file ever stored in DNA. The only larger one in existence is a file collection of more than 200MB that Microsoft has stored on DNA. DNA storage capacity is pegged at 215 petabytes per gram, or some 100 million movies…