Scientist: I’m going to code a film into DNA

Harvard genetics professor Dr. George Church, known for his recent attempts to restore the wooly mammoth, is reportedly attempting to code a film onto miniscule strands of DNA as a way to preserve the contents for hundreds of generations.

According to the Los Angeles Daily News, Dr. Church is attempting to code the 1902 French silent film “A Trip of the Moon” (believed by many to be the first science-fiction movie ever made) onto an unusual, denser type of genetic material known as “unnatural DNA.”

Unnatural DNA, the publication explains, was designed specifically to store high quantities of data and is different that the genes typically found in living organisms. With the financial support of film industry heavyweight Technicolor, Dr. Church’s lab is taking the hundreds of miniscule pixels that make up each image of a movie and assigning them a code based on color.

These codes are then converted into the chemical bases that comprise DNA – adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. Similarly, the film’s audio is broken down into smaller bits of data, given a numerical code and converted into DNA base pairs. Each DNA strand is then carefully labeled with a chemical index that denotes its place in the movie, so that a computer program can place each of the genetic fragments into the proper order and recreate the film.

Building upon previous research involving books

Once the data-filled genetic material is created, it can be easily copied and distributed, and the DNA that contains the film is about the size of a single atom, or smaller than a speck of dust, the Daily News said. Reading the DNA and watching the encoded movie requires a computer and access to a DNA sequencer, a unit which places the stands in their proper order.

Lest this sound impossible, Dr. Church has already pulled off a similar feat. Back in 2012, the Harvard geneticist encoded copies of his book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves onto DNA, converting every page into the four chemical bases and even taking copies of the encoded book onto the Comedy Central TV show The Colbert Report.

In reality, though, Dr. Church’s technique is not going to be used by the general population to read any books or watch any movies anytime in the near future. As he explained to the Daily News, this is “a baby technology” currently best suited for data storage and archival purposes. He added that he and his colleagues “don’t want people to get expectations too high.”


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