DNA: Encode in Code
Science & The Bible
As computing power has grown exponentially, so has the need for data storage. And the next leap is to DNA.
The oldest trick in the book is also the first question in the Bible. Regarding the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent in the Garden of Eden asked Eve: “Has God indeed said…”?1
Having introduced doubt about God’s clear statements while simultaneously offering an opportunity for Eve to indulge, the serpent proceeds to contradict God and then cast aspersion on God’s motives. Eve sets aside what she knows to be true and takes the bait (and the fruit). So then did Adam. Death entered the world,2 and here we are.
Thus is established a key strategy used ever since. Notice it does not start with a direct moral confrontation but by questioning what one’s target knows to be true.
Satan used a similar ploy while tempting Jesus in the wilderness,3 this time even misusing Scripture to entice Jesus to destroy Himself. Three times Satan’s enticements were parried by Christ with properly presented Scripture. Satan fled. Again, the outcome hinged in part on what the intended target knew to be true and what He did with this knowledge.
Much effort has been expended since then, undermining people’s knowledge of Scripture and its reliability. However, scientific developments are focusing new attention on the Bible’s precision.
As always, readers should remain aware that although God owns science, scientists are deceivable and can deceive. Scientific claims should be handled judiciously in light of Scripture.
The Bible Can Drive Major Scientific Discovery
In the March issue of Personal Update, we stated that the Bible can be used to develop powerful scientific hypotheses. This is not a new idea.
In one of many important historical examples, U.S. Naval Officer Matthew Maury, the “Father of Modern Oceanography,” who had been trained in the Bible by his father, took the Bible at its word and sought out the previously undiscovered “paths of the seas,” which are declared in Psalm 8:8. He found these paths to be certain strong currents in the oceans, and he mapped them, thereby greatly benefitting the world’s people by making shipping faster, cheaper and safer.
Following the lead of Ecclesiastes 1:6, Maury also searched out and found the atmospheric jet streams, again greatly helping mankind in meteorology and jet travel.4 There are many other examples of foundational scientists following the Bible’s lead to discovery. But in recent years the Bible has been relegated by scientists, as well as by much of the church, to the realm of imprecise spiritualism. This isn’t appropriate and may be beginning to change.
In prior issues of Personal Update, we described how the Bible signposted the existence of the recently discovered scientific field of epigenetics, which is today perhaps the hottest subject in biological research worldwide. We pointed out that the Bible lays out key principles of how epigenetics functions in humans and how to manage its effects. In retrospect, it’s clear that a careful examination of the Bible by geneticists would have resulted in an earlier discovery of epigenetics, perhaps decades earlier than it was discovered. Many lives which were lost to disease in the interim could have been saved.
We also related that today’s science is finding information to be a fundamental currency of the physical universe. We noted that the Bible has already declared this to be the case.5
Information Systems Should Prove Consistent
In studying this information, we can start with some key declarations from the Scriptures:
- God made the universe and everything in it;6
- God made man in His image;7
- Jesus Christ is the Word and the person by, for, and through which all things were created and exist;8
- God the Father and Jesus Christ are both unchanging.9, 10
From these declarations we can hypothesize that the basic framework of Creation will be consistent. And, more to the point here, information systems, both man-made and otherwise, both living and non-living, should exhibit parallel architectures, be understandable, and be inter-communicable and inter-manipulable. And this is precisely what we are beginning to see.
DNA for Digital Data Storage
As computing power has grown exponentially, so has the need for data storage. Historically, digital data has been stored as holes in cardboard read by mechanical fingers, like the data-driven Jacquard weaving looms of the 1800s. Then it was stored in the magnetic tapes and disks of the ’80s and ’90s, then optically in the CDs and DVDs of today. Each advance stored exponentially more data. And the next leap is to DNA.
Researchers have recently discovered how to use the chemical building blocks of DNA to archive and retrieve man-made information such as books, sounds, and images.11, 12
So far the method involves translating our media to the digital data’s matrix of 0s and 1s (and sometimes 2s as well for better error correction), and then from digital into DNA’s alphabet of C’s, G’s, A’s and T’s. Then, each of these four DNA letters is manifested in chemical form with a DNA synthesizer and ink-jet “printed” in necessary sequence onto a substrate such as a glass sheet. This process is reversed, using a DNA sequencer, to read the data back again.
The resultant synthetic DNA does not in this form code for creatures. But it has huge advantages. It can lay quietly for thousands of years, its man-made message harbored within it. To do so the DNA requires no external power source and needs nothing more than a small container and a cool, dry, dark place. And it’s very tiny, so tiny that researchers claim that the method properly developed could store 100 million hours of HD video in a springy lump of DNA the size of a tennis ball. Of course most storage of DNAta (DNA-stored digital data) would be in containers far smaller.
In a closely related development, researchers at Stanford University have developed a technique for using an enzyme to flip a segment of DNA within living microbe cells backwards and then forwards again. In the forward state, this segment of DNA causes the bacteria to fluoresce one color, in the backwards state another color.13 This allows the researchers, or an optical reader like that used in DVD systems, to easily see which state the DNA segment is in: forward or backward.
This system behaves like a single TRUE/FALSE or 1/0 binary digit, what’s known as a “bit” in computing. And the researchers found that the state in which this DNA switch is in (one direction or another) will persist for many generations of the microbe and can then be switched the other way again by the researchers using the enzyme. In other words, it’s a stable, rewriteable, and machine-readable data bit put inside DNA. Like the DNAta, this also would be a long-lasting data state that could persist without external power using only a very tiny space. Unlike the DNAta technique developed for archiving vast data, this development is at the opposite end of the quantity scale: it’s just one bit instead of zettabytes. But, it’s a reversible switch and is therefore “proof of concept” of one of the building blocks needed to build miniscule human-controlled chemically based computers inside things like living cells.
It Works—But Why?
From industry to espionage, the implications of being able to easily physically transport and store huge quantities of stable information in a medium so small that it can’t be seen by eye, can’t be traced like electronic digital communications can, and can’t be discerned by most modern sensing equipment, are many indeed. Our growing ability to build computers using DNA is just as portentous. Even more remarkable, though, is the question of why these new technologies work. Researchers say the DNA molecule was chosen for data archiving experiments because of:
…(DNA’s) capacity for high-density information encoding, longevity under easily achieved conditions, and proven track record as an information bearer.14
These same attributes apply to the building of bio-computers with DNA components. The very existence of such a molecule that was not made by man that can store and release vast, yet concise, information is startling enough. But the fact that DNA can be understood, and its components manipulated by man to store human writings, sounds and images in digital form, demonstrates that DNA, digital data, and human language can work together. The new ability to manipulate a component of DNA to act as a human-controlled TRUE/FALSE logical function reinforces the fact of this inter-operability. These observations make being able to put all of the world’s digital data in a bio-computer on the head of the proverbial pin nearly irrelevant. Why is this inter-operability possible?
DNA, digital data and human language can work together because they all follow the same rules: an overarching framework of logic which allows one form of data to be transformed into the other and back again, all without losing precise meanings. And because humans did not create DNA, this indicates that this logical framework is not a human-created concept but a set of precepts which existed prior to, and now exists independently of, both humans and DNA. As usual, the Bible is ahead of this discovery, declaring:
En arche en ho logos (In the beginning was the Word)15
The Greek logos (“Word”) here is not just the etymological root of our word logic. It is God’s precepts manifested in the Christ, the person by, for, and through Whom all things were created and do now exist.16 These are the precepts which allow man-made information systems to work interchangeably with information systems that were not made by man. This is powerful scientific knowledge, indeed.
Defeating “Has God Indeed Said…?”
Properly understood Scripture is a tremendous life-saving force, and not just through science. But to understand it, we must have it. Researchers reporting their new DNAta data archiving method have lamented that this new technology does not allow data stored this way to be overwritten.17 However, this attribute of data integrity, combined with DNA’s ability to last for thousands of years without a power source in nothing more than a tiny container stored in a cool, dry, dark place, makes it an excellent medium for caching valid copies of a lengthy but crucial document that has been the target of sustained, malicious revisionism: the Bible.
At the same time, though, there already is an existing, proven method of sustaining the integrity of the Scripture for the defense of ourselves, our neighbors, and our children. In this way, we become prepared to preserve the Word, to know it, and to do it:
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.