A few weeks ago my old friend Ben Taylor sent me a very interesting link to a story about archiving technologies . The story was about how all of our storage media eventually degrades. Film, tape, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, and so on all decay over time. Technicolor, the company that makes films so, technically colorful, has figured out a way to encode and store media on a DNA molecule! Here’s the article.
Basically, it’s not complicated. All of our media is now digital, encoded as a really long string of ones and zeros. DNA is a double helix molecule made up of four proteins CGAT. Cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine.
They can combine in an infinite number of combinations, which is why DNA is such a handy way to store all of life’s genetic information. We also have machines called genetic sequencers that can both read a DNA molecule and build one.
So, what the TECHNICOLOR people did was figure out how to encode the ones and zeros onto a DNA molecule, then build that DNA molecule. How do you play back the material? Build a player that reads the DNA molecule and converts it back to ones and zeros. Burn it onto a DVD and put it into your Blue Ray player.
The cool part is that you can store over 700 terabytes of information on one DNA molecule! Which is pretty much every movie and TV show ever made. The other reason they did this was because they say the DNA molecule is stable and won’t degrade.
But here’s the problem.
That’s how evolution works!
If DNA didn’t mutate, we’d still be four-legged lungfish crawling up out of the surf, looking up at the sky, land and saying: “Well, this is different. Hey Phil! Come on up here. You gotta see this!”
Now at this point you could argue that DNA usually mutates when cells reproduce. Sometimes the DNA copies aren’t perfect and that’s what causes the mutation. But the Technicolor DNA molecules are just sitting in a test tube. They are not replicating.
That’s true. However — there are other things that can make DNA mutate, like radiation. A stray alpha, beta, or gamma particle could come along, hit the molecule, and knock out a quinine here, a cytosine there. After a while, things could change. Not immediately, but after a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years?
A thousand years from now a group of historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and movie critics could get together to examine a recently discovered cache of late 20th Century movies and TV shows. They were found buried in a vault archived with a quaint technology utilizing DNA by a long-forgotten company called Technicolor.
HEAD SCIENTIST: As you all know the discovery of this cache of ancient media has given us an unprecedented opportunity to measure the accuracy of our historical records against actual recordings of history. You’ve all had a month to watch and review media from the last millennium. What have you found?
SCIENTIST #1: Well, actually some their movies are quite good. I just watched two fantastic movies, “Ishtar” and “Waterworld”.
HEAD SCIENTIST: Hmmm. Our records indicate they were two of the worst movies ever made.
SCIENTIST #1: I can’t understand why. Did you know that Ishtar was the movie where Betty Davis said “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.!” It only makes sense since they were all riding camels. And Waterworld! At the end, when Kevin Costner helped ET get back to his spaceship? I have to admit, I cried.
HEAD SCIENTIST: I see. What about “Star Wars’?
SCIENTIST #2: I saw the first three movies starting with “The Phantom Menace”.
HEAD SCIENTIST: And?
SCIENTIST #2: They were really good! And funny! Casting Groucho Marx as Obi Wan Kenobi and Robin Williams as young Anakin Skywalker was inspired!
HEAD SCIENTIST: And the next three in the series?
SCIENTIST #3: Not so much. Darth Vader and the Emperor win in the end and destroy the rebellion. It was really depressing. The only rebel left alive was Jar Jar Binks.
HEAD SCIENTIST: What about “Citizen Kane”? Our records show that as being one of the greatest movies of all time.
SCIENTIST #4: I don’t know why sir. In the first place somebody named Jackie Chan played the part of Kane. He spent the whole movie kicking people and riding on a sled. But he did do his own stunts!
HEAD SCIENTIST: What about “Casablanca?”
SCIENTIST #5: Horrible! Ronald Reagan as Rick and Joan Rivers as Ilsa? What were they thinking? No chemistry!
HEAD SCIENTIST: OK, what about television?
SCIENTIST #6: Quite frankly only one show stood out and it was brilliant.
HEAD SCIENTIST: What was it?
SCIENTIST #6: “Gilligan’s Island.” Orson Welles as the Skipper, Brad Pitt as Gilligan, Marilyn Monroe as Ginger, Sally Field as Mary Ann, Helen Mirren and John Barrymore as the Howells and John Wayne as the professor.! Brilliant casting. And who knew Arthur Miller could write comedy!
What have you done Technicolor? What have you done?