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Newspapers outdated? Read some DNA

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Daedalus Howell/Index-Tribune

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Last year, scientists at the European Bioinformatics Institute created a DNA information storage and retrieval system – think “organic hard drive” – and tested it by uploading sonnets, sound clips and how-to’s. Basically, they scraped through the public domain archive of Wikimedia Commons, although they were ultimately discerning in their selections.

The information, stored on hundreds of thousands of strands of DNA, according to ExtremeTech, “… consisted of a .txt file of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a 26-second clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a .jpeg of the Bioinformatics Institute, a .pdf of Watson and Crick’s paper that detailed DNA structure, and a file that explains the actual encoding process being used …”

The files were downloaded from the Internet and encoded on DNA into an organic form – as it was described in a manner reminiscent of Douglas Adams – “the size of a rather small piece of dust.”

“When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover …?”

Uh, no, they effectively rendered the works of Shakespeare, King, Watson and Crick into the “lorem ipsum” of bioinformatics. True, they had to put something in there, but the question that gets me is how do you choose? Of all the works of humankind, how does one choose that with which to make history?

This kind of situation has come up before. Carl Sagan led the team at Cornell that decided what to include on the Voyager Golden Record, which was subsequently loaded onto the two Voyager spacecraft as a sort of “message in a bottle” to those beings with record players living outside the Milky Way.

Mozart, Stravinsky, Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry and, naturally, a bit of the old Ludwig Van made the cut. Given that both Voyagers left our solar system last year, it’s time to crank the tunes, since the copyright holders of the recordings included on the disc only allowed their use outside our solar system (somewhere Lawrence Lessig is shaking his head).

Would you want your creative work crammed into DNA or shot into space? Would you care about copyright? Would it violate Amazon’s Kindle Select program?

Hearkening back to the lorem ipsum notion, I’m half compelled to write a novel specifically to be used by the scientific community should they ever need to weave 60,000 words of finely crafted prose into the very fabric of life as we know it, or shoot some into space in search of life as we don’t know it yet. Either way, it’s a fair stab at literary immortality.

In fact, shooting bits and pieces of our selves into space has always been humanity’s go-to when trying to imprint its own relevance upon the great yawning expanse of the universe. If memory serves, I think this was also a plot point of “The Loved One,” which climaxed with the launch of a rocket packed with human cremains.

I first saw the flick projected on the side of a mausoleum at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard while picnicking atop some starlet’s grave. So, yeah, I’m going to hell. Before then, I’ll be sure to encode my oeuvre into a DNA information storage and retrieval system so future generations can enjoy it should they find themselves dining at my own tomb someday (success!).

As Thomas Paine wrote, “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.” But the contents of your DNA drive, well, they just might be.

Daedalus Howell gets his DNA all over DHowell.com.