Robert Grass says that though we believe information is here forever, it’s actually fragile. Hard drives and physical sources of information, like books, decay over time.
In a video for the BBC, Grass describes his quest to find a method of preserving information that could be stable for millions of years. The secret is DNA.
In 2012, research showed that you could translate a megabyte of information into DNA and then read it back again.
DNA has a language of its own, and is written in sequences of nucleotides (A, C, T, and G). Think of it as similar to binary, which breaks information down into ones and zeros.
And DNA has the advantage of being able to put an enourmous amount of information in a tiny space. Theoretically, one gram of DNA could hold 455 exabytes of information. That’s “enough for all the data held by Google, Facebook and every other major tech company, with room to spare,” according to New Scientist.
But the issue with previous DNA studies is that they haven’t looked at the stability of the information over time, which is a crucial factor, Grass says.
Now Grass and his researcher partner Reinhard Heckel, both of ETH Zurich in Switzerland, have come of up with a method for not only potentially fitting all of Facebook or Wikipedia into a small test tube, but preserving that forever.
Grass got his inspiration from ancient fossils, in which the DNA of the preserved animal is extremely stable (think Jurassic Park). DNA decays by reacting with water and oxygen, but by packing the synthesized DNA in stable glass, Grass can prevent the degradation.
But no preservation method is perfect, which is where Heckel comes in. Heckel came up with the idea of adding redundancies into the DNA, so that if you lose part of the information you can recover it.
They exposed their capsules to tests that mimic a 500,000 to a million years of cold storage, and they held up, Grass said.
The next question, he tells the BBC, is what we should store.