Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Are human beings just storage units for digital data that was archived by someone else a long time ago?

I used to wonder about the "junk DNA" on the human genome. What if it wasn't junk at all? What if it was data we just haven't been able to decode? What if somebody -- perhaps some beings advanced far beyond our comprehension, seemingly godlike in their powers -- stored it there eons ago, perhaps for humans to discover someday, once our scientific advances proved we were capable of processing what was stored there. Or not. In any event, as time went by and no message appeared, I lost interest in my little theory. Plus, biological storage of digital data seemed a needlessly roundabout approach. I forgot about it. Until I read this Science Daily story. (Hat tip to Coturnix.)
In a report scheduled for the April 9 issue of ACS' Biotechnology Progress, a bi-monthly journal, Masaru Tomita and colleagues in Japan point out that DNA has been attracting attention as perhaps the ultimate in permanent data storage.

Data encoded in an organism's DNA, and inherited by each new generation, could be safely archived for hundreds of thousands of years, the researchers state. In contrast, CD-ROMs, flash memory and hard disk drives can easily fall victim to accidents or natural disasters.

In their report, the researchers describe a method for copying and pasting data, encoded as artificial DNA, into the genome of Bacillus subtilis, (B. subtilis) a common soil bacterium, "thus acquiring versatile data storage and the robustness of data inheritance." The researchers demonstrated the method by using a strain of B. subtilis to store the message: "E=MC2 1905!" — Albert Einstein's famous 1905 energy-mass equivalence equation.
Granted, the researchers found a way to store digital data in bacteria. That's a far cry from the human genome. Still, the research is just in its infancy. Besides, what if our DNA was seeded with coded information by beings so advanced they saw the proto-humans they started out with as little more than bacteria themselves? I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep over this, but still... Just wondering, is all.


jimspice said...

Remember Lamarck, the French botanist who suggested the impetus behind evolution was use or disuse, such that a giraffe's stretching of his/her neck would result in its offspring being born with a longer neck? Well if bird songs and butterfly migration routes can pass from generation to generation via genetics, why not something such artistic or logical abililities? Who knows, maybe in a couple hundred years they'll jave to change the old Louis Armstrong lyrics "they all laughed at Christopher Columbus...", though Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck would be a difficult fit, to be sure.


Dr. Andras J. Pellionisz said...

Science of "junk" DNA is not in its "infancy" at all.

In fact, the whole idea of "junk" DNA was challenged right away when it was coined by Ohno (1972, in the "Discussion" of his presentation).

True, that lots of scientists got severely derailed (for instance, when Nobelist Sydney Brenner held it "convenient" to disregard 98.7% of the [human] DNA - though he stressed that it was not "garbage" to be discarded, but "junk" that might well be very useful at some future time) - but at the least since 1987 this misnomer "junk" DNA was consistently challenged by an escalating number of scientists.

(See a compilation at http://www.junkdna.com )

In fact, on 12th of October, 2006, at the "European Inaugural" of the International PostGenetics Society (http://www.postgenetics.org) the notion of "junk" DNA was formally abandoned.