Nick Goldman – TOTAL RECALL Symposium


Nick Goldman, a mathimatician working in DNA, will talk about a completely new take on an old problem during TOTAL RECALL – The Evolution of Memory. Having been working with DNA and facing the challenges that storing a lot of data brings along, he developed a method of using DNA instead of harddrives, flashmemory or similar technology. It started out as a joke, but might be the solution for the future.

Nick Goldman, how did you come up with the idea to use DNA to store digital data?

We got into it, because it was a coincidence of two things, really. The two of us who lead the scientific part of this project work in genome-research. That means we know a lot about the current biological techniques of handling and manipulating DNA. Of course normally we’d expect to use a biological origin, the genomes of living organisms, which is a huge thing at the moment, of course having the human health in focus, but really trying to understand how all living organisms work.

So we already have a lot of expertise on that, but at the European Bioinformatics Institute, where we work, another one of our responsibilities is to hold one of the world’s major databases of genom-information, scientists all over the world send their data to us. We archive it, we do a lot of extra work, cross-referencing things, comparing different parts of genomes, and we send it back to the scientists via the internet. On that side of our work we’ve been involved in trying to manage those databases, and one of the problems we have is simply the amount of data being sent to us. So the advances in the technology to read DNA have been so big, it really doubles every 9 months or so.

We’ve been to a number to meetings where we were discussing how to manage the databases, we were discussing strategies how to store the data more and more efficiently, and at the end of one of these meetings we were just joking: “If only there was another way of storing DNA efficiently, a technology that didn’t rely on harddrives. They are expensive, they don’t last for a long time, they cost a lot of money to run them, to cool them and so on.

So we were joking about if there was any other way of handling this and it struck us: Look, DNA itself is a really efficient medium of storing information. And then we joked about the irony of the contemplating story of storing DNA-information in DNA, because you could argue that in order to store DNA you simply store it in it’s original form, you don’t have to encode it via a computer. But it could be any information, we worked on the principle of storing the bits and bytes not on magnetical material, but on molecules of DNA. And then we set down that evening, with some sheets of paper, scetched out a few ideas, using what we knew about the state of the art technology in DNA, and realised it would be feasible to have this running as an interesting side-project, just to see if we could make it work.

The very start of it was in 2010, because it is not our main project, we didn’t go very fast. It took one year to really get going, to see that we could really do it, another year to organize the experiments and get the results, and then a few months to write it up in scientific format.

What is the current status, are you able to encode and decode digital data?

Yes, we have a working system, we’ve done the initial proof of principle, in that example we were able to store a bit less than 1 megabyte of information, a number of different computer-files, we could encode them, transport the DNA, read it back and reconstruct the files back on a computer without error.

It actually created quite a lot of interest, we have been approached by quite a number of people who would like to do a “real” project. We tend to go into larger scale now, but it’s still very expensive, we’re going through discussions with a number of groups, which I can’t give you details now.

One of the projects we can talk about is the project you’re going to present during TOTAL RECALL – The Evolution of Memory, it’s the project you run together with Charlotte Jarvis, what is this about?

I’ve met Charlotte about a year ago, we were just finalizing the papers describing our work, and I heard about her. She had done a project with scientists in the Netherlands. So, when we did our proof of principle, we used the molecule structure of the DNA, but not of a living organism, we were manipulating the same chemical molecules that the genome uses.

In her case, it is about genetic modification of living bacteria. This is, maybe on a smaller scale, a well-known procedure, redesigning crops and so on.

So Charlotte has been working with dutch scientists and they have encoded the first article of the International Declaration of Human Rights into a living bacterium. Charlotte is very interested in using scientific ideas and bringing them to a larger audience, overcoming people’s fear or offen simply ignorance of scientific ideas. She chose that piece of text, because it has to do with human rights, human knowledge.

I’ve met her at the opening of the exhibition which was based on that idea, and we were talking and made a plan to do some future work together. She liked the idea that we could encode anything, she has only worked with the idea of storing an english language piece of text. We had already gone beyond just doing text and realized that you encode any information, just as you could encode it on a computer.

Our original draft would have included PDF-documents, mp3-files, photographs, to illustrate that anything was possible.

So we formed an idea to do something based on a piece of music, we introduced a big, big project, but didn’t get the funding, and when Ars Electronica invited me for the talk, I suggested to Charlotte that maybe we could do a smaller version of it, to show it to the world, again as a proof of principle, because we still hope to do it as a larger-scale project.

So, I can’t tell you too many details, because a lot of them are still secret, and I am in charge of the scientific side of things, whereas Charlotte is taking care of the artistic perspective. It is a new piece of music by Mira Calix. She has composed a short piece of music that is encoded in DNA and when we make our presentation, I will talk about the scientific work, and Charlotte is going to present how this project has inspired her artistic work.

At the end there will be an opportunity for the audience to participate in the performance that involves both the music and the DNA.

One last question: It started out as a joke, encoding digital data into DNA, but it was the idea was also born out of necessity. In your eyes, how far away are we from using the technology we have just talked about on a day-to-day-basis?

It is really hard to judge, because it all relies on technologies the evolve very, very quickly. But because of the speed of manipulating DNA and currently the cost of if, six months ago, I would have said that it’s not going to be practicle in the next ten years, and at the end of those ten years, a private individual might have something affordable for some valuable information he or she might want to store safely, your most secure backup, instead of uploading it to some sort of cloud-backup and hoping that in ten years the company offering it will still be there.

You could store it yourself very easily, it would be secure, in ten years, in the future, because the technology would be there.

We’ve been overwhelmed by the interest that people have showed in our research, who are prepared to invest in it, so that’s brought things even closer, I underestimated people’s interest, partly because of the novelty.

So, the way things are going now, we are currently negotiating on some surprisingly large projects, still you could call them proof or principle, but they are funded by well known companies to see if it’s possible for them.

So maybe ten years was a bit pessimistic, maybe in five years people will do this more regurarly.

We are not expecting to replace hard-discs or memory-sticks, it’s really going to be a value for special data, the DNA will last so long with no maintenance costs, and yet we are confident that we will be able to read those things in the future, something that we are not sure about with hard-drives. They break, they cost a lot of money to keep them running, and yet they come with a lot of problems.

DNA is something that we will always be able to understand, as long as there’s humans around, we will be investigating the genome of living organisms.

So we are not going to replace memory-sticks, but it might be viable alternative for valuable information, for individuals, for companies, for governments.

Interested? Come to Linz from September 5th to 9th and listen to Nick Goldman’s talk, he’s in very, very good company.