Miles Davis is one of the greatest musicians to ever live. His 1959 Kind of Blue album is well regarded as a masterpiece and routinely makes it on best album of all time lists (Rolling Stone). But Miles Davis is also a part of biological science history. In 2017 researchers encoded Miles Davis’ album Tutu into DNA. It was the first record to be encoded in the molecule, a milestone in biological history and perhaps a peek into our technological future. So, what developments have occurred since the Miles Davis milestone?
Davis’ Green in Blue song from his Kind of Blue album.
Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winning physicist, who was known for his work on the Manhattan Project as well as leading breakthroughs in Quantum Mechanics, is also known as the father of DNA computing. In a now famous, but then-obscure talk given the same year Davis’ masterwork album was released (1959), he stated:
This fact-that enormous amounts of information can be carried in an exceedingly small space-is, of course, well known to the biologists, and resolves the mystery which existed before we understood all this clearly, of how it could be that, in the tiniest cell, all of the information for the organization of a complex creature such as ourselves can be stored.
It was in this talk that Feynman argued that it would be possible for humans to also build tiny computers, as the first principle of this idea was already being demonstrated in life (The Great Courses).
It wasn’t until 1994 that cellular computation had been achieved, when Professor Leanard Max Adleman demonstrated that a bacterial cell’s DNA could solve the “Traveling Salesman” problem, which calculates the shortest distance among alternate paths. Although this computation took days, it was proof that DNA could in fact be used to solve problems. Between 2012 and 2017, books, pictures, movies, and of course, Miles Davis’ music had all been saved to DNA. But what has happened since? Where are we going with this?
The World’s Data
Technically, all the data in the world could be stored in DNA and equipment that could fit in a small room. Conversely, data centers owned by companies such as Google, and Microsoft dominate entire towns in terms of their energy use and impact on local economies. These centers can have the footprint of multiple football fields in one. Adversely, DNA doesn’t go on consuming energy once the molecule is formed. This has significant implications for potential use in storing data efficiently.
DNA computers are dependent on synthetic DNA. That is, scientists' ability to convert inert chemicals into the code of life. Scientists have already achieved the insertion of “printed” DNA into inactive cells and getting the cells to perform. Traditionally, DNA printing has been conducted using phosphoramidite chemistry, where short segments of DNA bases are chemically stitched together. This process is relatively slow and expensive. Therefore, new approaches have been developed, including the use of silicone-based platforms. This has increased speed and lowered costs dramatically. For example, using the silicon-based technology, scientists can produce 9600 genes within the same physical space that could produce 1 gene utilizing the phosphoramidite chemistry. Company Twist Bioscience is a leader in synthetic DNA synthesis, including the development of the silicon technology mentioned above.
However, this is still not good enough for DNA computing at scale. For example, it would cost $1 trillion (about $3,100 per person in the US) to save 1 petabyte of data (M.I.T.). Individual data centers store hundreds of petabytes of data. Not quite cost effective for this use at this time.
Enzymatic DNA Synthesis
DNA printing is a key technology that needs to be improved upon if other synthetic biology technologies are to be realized and commercialized. The next generation of DNA printing may utilize enzymes. Enzymatic DNA synthesis may be the key to cost and efficiency issues plaguing DNA computing. Twist Bioscience has also jumped into the arena here, purchasing DNA Script, a company that utilizes enzymes to print DNA.
To date, enzymatic DNA synthesis still runs into cost issues, particularly surrounding the cost of nucleoside triphosphate (c&en). However, certain applications, such as DNA storage, would benefit from the innocuous environments tolerated by enzymes in contrast to the highly technical lab setting needed for other methods of DNA synthesis. A significant issue with current methods of DNA synthesis is that they are quite limited in the length of a single strand that can be synthesized at a time. Enzymes should be better at producing significantly longer strands of DNA, where they will theoretically aid in lowering cost and increasing efficiency.
DNA synthesis is already playing meaningful roles in scientific research and medicine. However, the continued advancement of our ability to produce DNA quicker and cheaper will support the development of new technologies and industries, such as DNA computing and data storage. There is still much we do not know about DNA and its ability to perform computation. Parallel computing is a paradigm where a computer can perform many calculations at once. This phenomenon is what gives Quantum computing massive potential. However, DNA can also perform this type of computation, therefore DNA is not simply a potential storage solution, but also a tremendous opportunity to provide next generation computational power, not possible by traditional computers.
Also, scientists have successfully expanded the DNA code with the production of XNA molecules. These new molecules add extra letters to the DNA code (driven by a subfield of synthetic biology known as xenobiology), providing potential for even more computing power and data storage capabilities. The potential is massive, therefore companies such as Twist, are spending millions developing next-generation DNA synthesis technologies.
Art and Music
Art and music also express the technological capabilities of the time. Think of how modern manufacturing techniques and electronics have affected instrumentation. The photo of Miles Davis at the beginning of this writing was in fact composed by an A.I. system called Midjourney. As such, parallel computing will also influence music and various art forms. How so is anyone's guess, but scientists are only just beginning to explore quantum computing’s effects on sound. Perhaps the future Miles Davis will have sound enhanced by quantum computing, or even DNA.