Jan 262013

I told a nephew the other day that I think the New York Times Science Section every Tuesday  is reason enough to pay the newspaper’s monthly subscription price. The nephew had blogged movingly about his daily habit of reading newspaper obituaries. In our e-mail exchange, the nephew, Hank Greer, wrote, profoundly, IMHO, that “the universe is the ultimate recycle bin.”

That reminded me about the piece in the NYT January 15 issue about Bernd Heinrich, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont. Over the years Heinrich, author of 17 books and a former champion marathoner, has studied dung beetles, bumblebees, owls and geese, among many others.

Last summer Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published his latest, Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death. Heinrich, the Times reports, spends his time at a cabin he built in a remote forest in western Maine that lacks indoor plumbing and electricity, where he continues to study what happens to animals when they die.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the article:

Some of the recyclers I enjoyed more than others. Ravens are very appealing. I’ve never met a raven I didn’t like. I can’t find maggots appealing, but after a while I did get used to them. Today I can watch maggots and find them quite interesting. Just this summer, I put out a raccoon carcass and it was almost consumed by maggots and there was nothing left, no meat whatsoever, in three days. And then, I saw a whole cohort leave, thousands of them, and they left the raccoon as a group, all in one direction.

I don’t have much experience with maggots. But I do remember the noise they made working over a cow that  died in my grandfather’s corral years ago. Because of the stench, I couldn’t get close, but even from several yards away, I could hear nature’s scavengers at work.

What prompts the headline on this post are reports (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, among others) that scientists at the European Bioinformatics Institute have figured out how to store digital information in DNA. The reports were based on an article published in the journal Nature.

One scientist told the FT: “We already know that DNA is a robust way to store information because we can extract it from bones of woolly mammoths, which date back tens of thousands of years, and make sense of it. It’s also incredibly small, dense and does not need any power for storage, so shipping and keeping it is easy.”

Here’s the punch line as reported in the Financial Times: A cup of DNA could store up to 100 million hours of high-definition video. The EBI scientists, in Cambridge, England, encoded in the chemical letters of a DNA sample (G, A, T and C) Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and various and sundry other stuff and shipped the code off to a California biotechnology company, Agilent, which turned it into physical DNA. Agilent shipped the freeze-dried DNA, said to look like a piece of dust, back to England (USPS? FedEx? The article doesn’t say), where EBI “was able to reconstruct the original digital data with 100 per cent accuracy.”

Wow! There’s hope yet for that box full of old hard drives in the basement — provided, no sure thing, I can find some way to read them once DNA storage becomes practical.

  One Response to “Hard drives? So yesterday”

  1. Mike,

    Thanks for the the kind words, the link, and for referring to me with the moniker “nephew”. It sounds as if I’m young!


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