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Which Two Songs Are the First to Be Encoded Into the Fabric of Life?

Advances in synthetic DNA are offering a way to preserve music forever, like a fly in amber.

Is Mother Nature's ultimate storage device the future of digital music?
Is Mother Nature’s ultimate storage device the future of digital music? Public Domain

Permanence is a fallacy. Time crumbles, earthquakes shatter, wars raze, waters rise—but two pieces of music, recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, may be able to endure any disaster, natural or manmade, for thousands upon thousands of years. U.S. company Twist Bioscience, working with Microsoft Research and the University of Washington, is using the latest genetic technology to encode data directly into strands of DNA. Generally, digital information is encoded as a long, long string of zeros and ones, known as binary format. DNA can store it with four values—A, T, C and G, corresponding to adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine, the nucleobases that make up the biological molecule—which makes it far more efficient for data storage.

It’s now possible—whether this future is frightening or promising may be a matter of perspective—to create synthetic DNA strands. These artificial pieces of genetic code combine the nucleobases in any order we want, which makes it possible to store data in a vanishingly small space. The entire internet, the project stated in a release, would fit into a shoebox of DNA. All the world’s music would fit into a few drops. This data, once encoded, can be analyzed and reconstructed with no loss of information. DNA is also a very stable molecule, and once encapsulated, it could last for millions of years—think of a fly in amber. In millions of years, future human beings, if we’re still around and able to retrieve this information, will be able to hear the strains of 21st-century jazz, exactly as it sounds today. The first songs encoded into very the fabric of life are “Tutu,” by Miles Davis, and a jazz cover of “Smoke on the Water,” by Deep Purple.

Could this be the end of the infinite grind of music formats and obsolescence? Phonograph cylinders, LPs, cassettes, 8-tracks, CDs, mini-discs, mp3s—and now DNA? The only problem might be how you keep from losing it.