Science & Faith
2/1/13 at 05:54 PM 5 Comments

Half a Million DVDs in Your DNA: Technology Borrows Intelligent Design from Biology

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Model of DNA

Within the last year it has become possible to store computer digital code on DNA, which is the best known information storage medium of the biological world. Last week the news broke that this new biology-imitating technology has become many times more efficient. It is time to reflect on the implications of this information technology for the origin of life.

On January 23, 2013 an article in the journal Nature, Half a Million DVDs in Your DNA, announced that UK scientists had stored (and accurately retrieved) an unprecedented amount of written, audio, and visual information on DNA. Last year Harvard scientists had announced the sucessful DNA-storage of a huge number of book copies in a tiny space--700 terabits per gram, to be exact. Now several UK scientists associated with the European Bioinformatics Institute have improved such DNA storage, raising its density to 2.2 petabytes per gram, which is about three times the density achieved at Harvard. One petabyte is equivalent to a thousand terabytes, and a terabyte is a thousand gigabytes. Computer users understand gigabytes (and the newer terabyte hard drives). Get the picture?

Here is how the article in Nature explains this latest achivement in massive digital storage.

To do so, the team first translated written words or other data into a standard binary code of 0s and 1s, and then converted this to a trinary code of 0s, 1s, and 2s—a step needed to help prevent the introduction of errors. The researchers then rewrote that data as strings of DNA's chemical bases: As, Gs, Cs, and Ts. At the storage density achieved, a single gram of DNA would hold 2.2 million gigabits of information, or about what you can store in 468,000 DVDs. What's more, the researchers also added an error correction scheme, encoding the information multiple times, among other tricks, to ensure that it could be read back with 100% accuracy.

Although the article addresses the practical limitations of using DNA to store data created by humans, it acknowledges that future advances may make this a more viable option for practical applications. At the moment, our technological control over DNA is not as robust as the highly efficient ways that DNA is used in biological organisms. But at least this much is clear: It requires advanced human intelligent endeavor to gain even the modest level of control we have over DNA information storage. Biological organisms reflect a much more advanced intelligent source of their information processing capabilities. Thinking our way into the distant technological future, perhaps we will one day make machines that not only store and retrieve many petabytes of information, but that also reproduce themselves like living organisms do.

Let's review what DNA is and how it is used within living organisms. Then we can think more clearly about the origin of life. The DNA in every living cell stores digital code that directs the sequencing of amino acids in protein construction. Proteins are the most important kind of biologically functional molecules. They compose most of the basic physical structures and perform a wide range of enzymatic functions (chemical reaction management) in cellular life. The problem of life’s origin is essentially the problem of how biological information came into being, how it came to be stored in DNA and RNA, and how the cell acquired a means of using this information for making life-critical proteins and coordinating their use.

Think about the above paragraph in this blog. I originally typed that paragraph on my Mac in Microsoft Word. I then uploaded it to the blog website. This paragraph actually originated in my mind, was sent through my brain to activate nerve fibers that contracted muscles, which caused a certain sequence of keyboard strokes (letters in the English alphabet, spaces, punctuation, etc.). After a series of other chosen clicks and keyboard strokes, it was uploaded. Thus, the information that originated in my mind (based on reading texts created by other minds) was stored as digital code and posted on the Internet.

Whenever large amounts of functional information are present, and we know the causal processes that led to their origin (as is the case with human technology), such processes always trace back to intelligent agency as their point of origin. The DNA code in organisms is also functional information. It codes for proteins that perform life-critical functions. Recent advances in technology and the natural sciences help us to better grasp the relevant properties that are shared in common between objects of biological and technological endeavor. Welcome to the information age. Intelligent design is the future of biology.

To make sure you are grasping the significance of this news for what it implies about life's origin, here is ENV from a few days ago on the topic:

This is truly a profound achievement of human intelligent design. Why wouldn't the same be true of natural DNA? A critic of ID theory might say that humans could arrange rocks or sand to store a message and it wouldn't mean the materials were intelligently designed. True, but the essence of the design is not in the medium, but the message.

And natural DNA does store a message: the genetic code. It's functional information. Just look at the trouble that can ensue when mutations scramble the information. There's far more information in our DNA than the UK team embedded in theirs -- layers and layers of coding that regulate gene expression and respond interactively to signals in a vast network of complex feedback loops. It's a whole system of information. To clinch the comparison, natural DNA also has elaborate error correction, proofreading and repair systems that can copy all that information with extremely high fidelity.

As the Shakespearean sonnets in DNA point to intelligent design, the functional information in natural DNA points to intelligent design. It would be foolish to ascribe the superior information to blind, unguided processes. Maybe that's why none of the articles cited above even mentioned evolution.

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