Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Secret Tracks, Easter Eggs, and Slartibartfast

Centauri Dreams points to a terrific piece in the New York Times by Dennis Overbye about encoding messages in DNA (both scientists' ability to do so now, and the possibility that someone might have done it before...).
Using the same code that computer keyboards use, the Japanese group, led by Masaru Tomita of Keio University, wrote four copies of Albert Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc2, along with “1905,” the date that the young Einstein derived it, into the bacterium’s genome, the 400-million-long string of A’s, G’s, T’s and C’s that determine everything the little bug is and everything it’s ever going to be.

The point was not to celebrate Einstein. The feat, they said in a paper published in the journal Biotechnology Progress, was a demonstration of DNA as the ultimate information storage material, able to withstand floods, terrorism, time and the changing fashions in technology, not to mention the ability to be imprinted with little unobtrusive trademark labels — little “Made by Monsanto” tags, say.

In so doing they have accomplished at least a part of the dream that Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and musician, and David Sulzer, a biologist at Columbia, enunciated in 1999. To create the ultimate time capsule as part of the millennium festivities at this newspaper, they proposed to encode a year’s worth of the New York Times magazine into the junk DNA of a cockroach. “The archival cockroach will be a robust repository,” Mr. Lanier wrote, “able to survive almost all conceivable scenarios.”
I played around with a vaguely similar idea in my short story "Contagion," in which information was stored and transmitted using the RNA of retroviruses, but to me the interesting part of Overbye's piece is the question of whether there might not already be messages hidden in our own DNA.
If cockroaches can be archives, why not us? The human genome, for example, consists of some 2.9 billion of those letters — the equivalent of about 750 megabytes of data — but only about 3 percent of it goes into composing the 22,000 or so genes that make us what we are.

The remaining 97 percent, so-called junk DNA, looks like gibberish. It’s the dark matter of inner space. We don’t know what it is saying to or about us, but within that sea of megabytes there is plenty of room for the imagination to roam, for trademark labels and much more. The King James Bible, to pick one obvious example, only amounts to about five megabytes.

Inevitably, if you are me, you begin to wonder if there is already something written in the warm wet archive, whether or not some Slartibartfast has already been here and we ourselves are walking around with little trademark tags or more wriggling and squiggling and folded inside us. Gill Bejerano, a geneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who mentioned Slartibartfast to me, pointed out that the problem with raising this question is that people who look will see messages in the genome even if they aren’t there — the way people have claimed in recent years to have found secret codes in the Bible.

Nevertheless, no less a personage than Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the double helix, writing with the chemist Leslie Orgel, now at the Salk Institute in San Diego, suggested in 1973 that the primitive Earth was infected with DNA broadcast through space by an alien species.

As a result, it has been suggested that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, should look inward as well as outward. In an article in New Scientist, Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University, wrote, “So might ET have inserted a message into the genomes of terrestrial organism, perhaps by delivering carefully crafted viruses in tiny pace probes to infect host cell with message-laden DNA?"
Overbye's piece, and the commentary on Centauri Dreams, are well worth checking out.

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