From Synthetic DNA to Billion Year Libraries

Long Now Boston Conversation SeriesOctober 7, 02019, at the Cambridge Innovation Center.
Featuring Dr. Hyunjun Park, CEO of CATALOG DNA, and Nova Spivack, Chairman of Arch Mission Foundation.

Synopsis: Human science and imagination are moving us to a reality we can barely comprehend.  Synthetic DNA is the basis for stunningly efficient data storage and sophisticated computational functionality – yet the microminiaturized manufacturing process defies visualization.  Using this technology, petabytes of data are encoded on strands of DNA and dried into something the size of a sugar cube.  Imagine such a cube layered into a small, superstrong container at the core of a small disk the size of a DVD.  That disk consists of a number of layers of nickel nanofiche analog imagery on top of high-density digital storage layers, bonded with an epoxy in which human and other DNA samples are stored — a complete library of human knowledge and history.  Now imagine those libraries scattered around the earth, on the moon, in orbit around the sun, where they will serve as the backup for planet Earth, lasting billions of years. 

Summary by George Gantz

DNA on Earth

The story of DNA is a fascinating one.  While many would point to the theoretical breakthrough of Watson and Crick (1953) in identifying the double-helix structure of DNA, based on the x-ray crystallography of Rosalind Franklin (1952), the story goes back many years.  More than 3.5 billion years, in fact.  The was the point, or so we estimate, that the fermenting organic chemistry on the primordial earth discovered and began to deploy the remarkable properties of DNA.  DNA is incredibly efficient at storing information.  It is compact, resilient and flexible — easily replicated and easily stored.  The properties that now make it useful as a data storage medium for the information age were quite useful for life.  Indeed, 3.6B years later, one of those life forms mastered the sophisticated technologies needed to synthesize DNA for use as a data storage medium.

Hyunjun’s company, CATALOG DNA, is leading the commercialization of DNA data storage by building a library of coded sequences of DNA base pairs, rather than using the raw single C, A, G and T base pairs of natural DNA.  This speeds up the encoding and reading of DNA for data storage, bringing down the cost significantly.  CATALOG is now also pioneering the concept of performing computations directly on DNA data — potentially affording a quick and less costly solution for analyzing and searching huge sets of data, tasks which now require banks of processors and significant energy (e.g. heat) to shuttle data around.  DNA data storage may be cool in more ways than one.

DNA in Space

Our knowledge of most of the past civilizations on Earth is quite limited, as it is based on the artifacts, largely immense stone buildings and rare artifacts or documents, that have survived through centuries of decay and neglect.  In contrast, the civilization in which we are currently living, as advanced as it may seem, is quite ephemeral – almost all of our products, goods, services and information exist in forms that are fleeting and, if not maintained, would decay irreparably within a few centuries or even decades.  For example, many of the records at the National Archives are preserved on microfilm and subject to rapid degradation from heat, humidity and age, with no plans or funding for permanent maintenance or upgrade.

Arch Mission intends to solve this concern by designing and building a backup for planet Earth – a solar system-scale archive of civilization designed to last for billions of years.  The approach begins with nickel nanofiche layers (up to a million images per “page”) that can be viewed with 19th century microscope technology.  These layers include instructions for building a device to read the next layers, which contain digital data stored on nickel DVDs with storage capacity measured in gigabytes (millions of kilobytes).  These are followed by vials of synthetic DNA with data content measured in petabytes (millions of gigabytes).  The data includes all of Wikipedia, dictionaries, compendiums and encyclopedias in many languages, along with the Pan-Lex of the Long Now Foundation which has catalogued 5,700 human languages.  From such a library, with patience and resources, a sentient culture could rebuild human civilization.

Arch Missions have already been deployed.  A prototype was included in the glove compartment of Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster (now orbiting the sun), and earlier this year a 30-million-page lunar library was sent to the moon on the Space IL Beresheet Moon Lander.  This mission unfortunately crashed on its descent, but as Nova reports: “We have either installed the first library on the Moon, or we installed the first archaeological ruins of early human attempts to build a library on the Moon.” 

In addition to the stated mission of providing billion-year backups for planet earth, these efforts are also designed to ensure that no person, institution government or future civilization will ever be able to sequester or destroy the information they contain.  But in the near term, they meet a more salient motive – to educate humanity about the fragility of the human civilization that we live in.  History suggests that it is likely to fail, unless we have the imaginative capacity to build the cultures and institutions that can insure it will not.

Epilogue

Nova was asked in the Q&A how he feels about the Fermi Paradox.  The paradox was initially posed by the physicist Enrico Fermi.  As we peer into space, we have been anticipating the discovery of extraterrestrial civilizations.  But as the discovery of distant worlds and our efforts to probe the stars have expanded, we have never encountered any evidence of them.  “Where are they all?”  is the question.  Nova speculated that life will continue to evolve in new forms – beyond the confines of DNA and life as we know it – as it goes interstellar.  Perhaps this is the answer to the Fermi paradox — that extraterrestrial life has evolved multiple times, but into forms and structures we cannot yet perceive and do not yet recognize.  

They may be all around us – perhaps waiting for our technology and evolutionary trajectory to advance to a level where we would be worth communicating with.

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Biography

Dr. Hyunjun Park is Co-Founder and CEO of CATALOG, a company on the leading edge of DNA data storage using the tools of synthetic biology. Hyunjun obtained his BS at Seoul National University, PhD in microbiology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and conducted postdoctoral research at MIT.

Nova Spivack, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Arch Mission Foundation, is a tech entrepreneur, investor and futurist with a career spanning more than two decades. He helped create dozens of ventures and nearly 100 patents, collectively generating billions of dollars in market value, and has advised governments, corporations, investors and tech startups. Nova is also the Founder & CEO of Magical, a science and technology venture studio based in Los Angeles. 

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See original event announcement here.

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Long Now Boston is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is independent from but philosophically aligned with the Long Now Foundation.  Long Now Boston provides a forum for discussing, investigating and engaging in issues that have long-term implications for our global cultures.  Long Now Boston hosts a monthly Community Conversation series in Cambridge, MA.   Please sign up on our website for notices.

Cambridge Innovation Center is an in-kind sponsor of this Long Now Boston conversation. We are very grateful for their support.

Our next Community Conversation will be on November 4, James Hughes, Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and Nir Eiskovits, Director of the Applied Ethics Center at UMASS Boston, will lead a conversation on Future Humans and the Price of Progress.

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