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DNA: the best information storage system

by 

4 June 2015; updated 9 October 2015

dna strand

Living creatures not only contain enormously complex machines, they also contain the ‘instruction manual’ to build these machines—which can be seen as a sort of ‘recipe book’ programmed on DNA, the famous ‘double helix’ molecule (deoxyribonucleic acid). In many articles and books, we have pointed out two of its remarkable features:

  1. Huge information storage capacity dwarfing that of the most advanced computer hardware.
  2. Surprising chemical instability.

Now some recent high-tech experiments on information storage have further vindicated our articles.

Encyclopedic information store

The information in DNA is spelled out using four different chemical ‘letters’: A, T, C, and G.1 These letters have a vital property which allows information to be transmitted: A pairs only with T, and C only with G. Due to the chemical structure of the bases, each pair is like a rung or step on a spiral staircase, the famous ‘double helix’ shape. Each DNA molecule has two strands, effectively the sides of the spiral staircase. The letter pairs form the steps, with A always opposite T and C always opposite G. The two strands can be separated and copied independently to form TWO spiral staircases, such that the new strands are exact copies of the original information.

If we could make a 1-gigabyte memory component using DNA, it would have a diameter thinner than a human hair.

The copying is far more precise than laboratory chemistry could manage, because there is editing (proof-reading and error-checking) machinery, again encoded in the DNA. This machinery keeps the error rate down to less than one error per 100 million letters.2 But, since the editing machinery itself requires proper proofreading and editing during its manufacturing, how would the information for the machinery be transmitted accurately before the machinery was in place and working properly? Lest it be argued that the accuracy could be achieved stepwise through selection, note that a high degree of accuracy is needed to prevent ‘error catastrophe’ in the first place—from the accumulation of ‘noise’ in the form of junk proteins specified by the damaged DNA.

Nowadays we would say that each of our cells—and there are about a hundred trillion in the human body—contains about three gigabytes of information.3 This is an incredibly high information density, about 1,000 terabytes per cubic millimetre (Tb/mm³).4 Even the simplest living creature, the tiny germ Mycoplasma, has about 600 kilobytes.5 And even its genome seems incredibly highly compressed. Some bioengineers, led by Stanford University’s Markus Covert, succeeded in modelling this ‘simple’ germ with computers.6 One report on trying to model the processes involved in one cell division for this cell stated:

“What’s fascinating is how much horsepower they needed to partially simulate this simple organism. It took a cluster of 128 computers running for 9 to 10 hours to actually generate the data on the 25 categories of molecules that are involved in the cell’s lifecycle processes.”7

In theory, without the constraints of cell function, DNA could store information at a density a thousand times more than in a cell, at a million Tb/mm³. If we could make a 1-gigabyte memory component using DNA, it would have a diameter thinner than a human hair.8

commons.wikimedia.org

DNA-DAPI

DAPI lodging into a DNA double helix groove.

DNA is unstable

DNA is a very complicated molecule, and actually a very unstable one. DNA researchers often need to store it in liquid nitrogen, at –196°C (77 K; −320°F), and even that frigid temperature doesn’t entirely stop breakdown.

“There is a general belief that DNA is ‘rock solid’—extremely stable,” says Brandt Eichman, associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt, who directed the project. “Actually DNA is highly reactive. On a good day about one million bases in the DNA in a human cell are damaged.”9

Fortunately, in our cells, we have many elaborate repair machines to undo this chemical damage.10 But most skeptics believe that life evolved in a primordial soup,11 which would have lacked such machines (not to mention the lack of any evidence that it existed at all12). So even if DNA managed to form spontaneously somehow, it would not have survived long.13

DNA in dino bones

For the past two decades,14 Dr Mary Schweitzer, although a committed (theistic) evolutionist herself, has been rocking the evolutionary/uniformitarian world with discoveries of soft tissue in dinosaur bones.15,16 These discoveries have included ligaments, blood and bone cells; flexible blood vessels;17 proteins like collagen,18,19 osteocalcin,20,21 actin, and histones, and most importantly, DNA.22,23 Her team detected DNA in three independent ways, including DAPI,24 which lodges in the minor groove of a DNA double helix. This shows that the DNA was quite intact, since short strands of DNA less than about 10 ‘letters’ don’t form stable duplexes.

However, a recent paper on DNA stability estimates that, even when preserved in bone, it would be completely disintegrated down to single ‘letters’ in 22,000 years at 25°C (77°F), 131,000 years at 15°C (59°F), 882,000 years at 5°C (41°F); and 6.83 million years at –5°C (23°F).25 Thus the researchers state:

Mary Schweitzer’s team detected DNA in three independent ways, including DAPI, which lodges in the minor groove of a DNA double helix. This shows that the DNA was quite intact, since short strands of DNA less than about 10 ‘letters’ don’t form stable duplexes. However, a recent paper on DNA stability estimates that, even when preserved in bone, it would be completely disintegrated down to single ‘letters’ in 6.83 million years at –5°C (23°F).
“However, even under the best preservation conditions at –5°C, our model predicts that no intact bonds (average length = 1 bp [base pair]) will remain in the DNA ‘strand’ after 6.8 Myr. This displays the extreme improbability of being able to amplify a 174 bp DNA fragment from an 80–85 Myr old Cretaceous bone.”26

Note also, dinosaurs mostly lived in a warm climate, where DNA would break even more quickly, according to the above data.

DNA as computer information store

Computer manufacturers are always trying to increase the memory storage density of their hardware. Not surprisingly, some are looking to DNA because of its superlative qualities.

Another problem to be solved is data storage for the long term. Ordinary hard disk drives could not last more than a few decades, and are vulnerable to magnetic fields, high temperatures, and simply moisture and mechanical failure. Even the newer solid state drives must be connected to a power source or else their data will be lost in a few months.

It turns out that DNA might be the solution to this problem as well. Sure, it wouldn’t be able to stand the imagined evolutionary time scales, but it could well last longer than the above alternatives. Robert Grass and his team at prestigious university ETH27 Zürich (Switzerland) developed a promising technology.28

They first encoded 83 kilobytes of written information into 4,991 DNA segments each 158 ‘letters’ long. Such short segments are necessary because of the limits of current technology. By contrast, DNA molecules in our cells have from 50 million to 250 million ‘letters’.

Then they protected the delicate DNA by encapsulating it into 150-nanometer29 silica glass spheres—about the size of viruses. To recover the DNA, the spheres would be dissolved in a fluoride solution that doesn’t harm the DNA.

The real test was how long DNA would last. Obviously, tests lasting thousands of years are impractical, but it’s well known that reaction rate is strongly dependent on temperature.30 So time can be exchanged for temperature. The research term heated DNA at 60–70°C (140–160°F) for up to a month, which is equivalent to 10,000 years in a refrigerator at 4°C [40°F]. They found that 8% of the information was lost and most of the sequences had at least one mistake. But they also employed error checking codes, so the data could be recovered. If the DNA had been frozen to –18°C (0°F), it could have lasted over 2 million years.

Conclusion

This cutting-edge research underscores the awe-inspiring technology that our Creator has programmed into all living creatures. Since the best human computer technologists can’t beat it, they join it—they use the most compact information storage system known. The research also shows that even with highly artificial protection in nanoscopic silica balls, and by reducing the temperature to values much less than the areas in the world that generally contain dinosaur bones, DNA could not last as long as the evolutionary age of dinosaur fossils.

Update

To show the importance of these issues even in the secular scientific world, the 2015 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three researchers for the discovery of the instability of DNA, which led scientists to realize that living things must have repair machinery.

Chemistry Nobel: Lindahl, Modrich and Sancar win for DNA repair

By Paul Rincon

Science editor, BBC News website, 7 October 2015

In the 1970s, scientists had thought that DNA was a stable molecule, but Prof Lindahl demonstrated that it decays at a surprisingly fast rate.

This led him to discover a mechanism called base excision repair, which perpetually counteracts the degradation of DNA.

Sir Martyn Poliakoff, vice president of the UK‘s Royal Society, said:

Understanding the ways in which DNA repairs itself is fundamental to our understanding of inherited genetic disorders and of diseases like cancer. The important work that Royal Society Fellow Tomas Lindahl has done has helped us gain greater insight into these essential processes.

Turkish-born biochemist Aziz Sancar, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, US, uncovered a different DNA mending process called nucleotide excision repair. This is the mechanism cells use to repair damage to DNA from UV light—but it can also undo genetic defects caused in other ways.

People born with defects in this repair system are extremely sensitive to sunlight, and at risk of developing skin cancer.

The American Paul Modrich, professor of biochemistry at Duke University in North Carolina, demonstrated how cells correct flaws that occur as DNA is copied when cells divide. This mechanism, called mismatch repair, results in a 1,000-fold reduction in the error frequency when DNA is replicated.

Related Articles

Further Reading

References and notes

  1. Adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. They are part of building blocks called nucleotides, which are made up of three parts: the sugar deoxyribose, a phosphate, and a base (A, C, G, or T). In RNA, uracil (U) substitutes for thymine and ribose substitutes for deoxyribose. Return to text.
  2. Kunkel, T.A., DNA Replication Fidelity, J. Biological Chemistry 279:16895–16898, 23 April 2004. Return to text.
  3. For simplicity, I am treating each DNA ‘letter’ as a ‘byte’ of information, which is ‘in the right ball park’, and we have 3.17 billion base pairs (bp). In reality, since there are four possibilities at each locus, so it could store two bits of information per letter, and we have two copies of the genome in each cell, so 6.34 billion bp. Return to text.
  4. Borthine, D., DNA storage could preserve data for millions of years, gizmag.com, 18 February 2015. Return to text.
  5. Fraser, C.M., et al., The minimal gene complement of Mycoplasma genitalium, Science 270(5235):397–403, 1995; perspective by Goffeau, A., Life with 482 Genes, same issue, pp. 445–446. They reported 582,000 DNA bases or ‘letters’. Other reports have a different number, but all within the same ball park. Return to text.
  6. Karr, J.R. et al., A whole-cell computational model predicts phenotype from genotype, Cell 150(2):389–410, 20 July 2012. Return to text.
  7. Madrigal, A.C., To model the simplest microbe in the world, you need 128 computers, theatlantic.com, 23 July 2012. Return to text.
  8. ‘Ryan’, The amazing history of information storage: how small has become beautiful, numbersleuth.org, 30 August 2012. Return to text.
  9. Salisbury, D.F., Newly discovered DNA repair mechanism, Science News, sciencedaily.com, 5 October 2010. Return to text.
  10. Sarfati, J., New DNA repair enzyme discovered, creation.com/DNA-repair-enzyme, 13 January 2010. Return to text.
  11. For problems with materialistic ideas that life evolved from non-living chemicals, see creation.com/origin and Sarfati, J., By Design, ch. 11, 2008. Return to text.
  12. Brooks, J., and Shaw, G. point out, “If there ever was a primitive soup, then we would expect to find at least somewhere on this planet either massive sediments containing enormous amounts of the various nitrogenous organic compounds, acids, purines, pyrimidines, and the like; or in much metamorphosed sediments we should find vast amounts of nitrogenous cokes. In fact no such materials have been found anywhere on earth.” Origins and Development of Living Systems, p. 359, 1973. Return to text.
  13. Many skeptics believe that life started with a similar molecule called RNA (ribonucleic acid). But this is even less stable than DNA, and so are its building blocks such as the sugar ribose. John Horgan admits in ‘Scientists don’t have a clue how life began’ above, “But the ‘RNA-world’ hypothesis remains problematic. RNA and its components are difficult to synthesize under the best of circumstances, in a laboratory, let alone under plausible prebiotic conditions. … The RNA world is so dissatisfying that some frustrated scientists are resorting to much more far out—literally—speculation.” For those interested in chemistry, more chemical problems with ‘RNA World’ ideas can be found at creation.com/rna. Return to text.
  14. A good summary is Catchpoole, D., Double-decade dinosaur disquiet, Creation 36(1):12–14, 2014; creation.com/dino-disquiet. Return to text.
  15. Schweitzer, M.H. et al., Heme compounds in dinosaur trabecular bone, PNAS 94:6291–6296, June 1997. Return to text.
  16. Wieland, C., Sensational dinosaur blood report! Creation 19(4):42–43, 1997; creation.com/dino_blood. Return to text.
  17. Smith, C., Dinosaur soft tissue: In seeming desperation, evolutionists turn to iron to preserve the idea of millions of years, creation.com/dinosaur-soft-tissue, 28 January 2014. Return to text.
  18. Schweitzer, M.H. et al., Biomolecular characterization and protein sequences of the Campanian hadrosaur B. canadensis, Science 324(5927):626–631, 1 May 2009. Return to text.
  19. Wieland, C., Dinosaur soft tissue and protein—even more confirmation!, creation.com/schweit2, 6 May 2009. Return to text.
  20. Other researchers found osteocalcin ‘dated’ to 120 Ma: Embery G. and six others, Identification of proteinaceous material in the bone of the dinosaur Iguanodon, Connect Tissue Res. 44 Suppl 1:41–6, 2003. The abstract says: “an early eluting fraction was immunoreactive with an antibody against osteocalcin.” Return to text.
  21. Sarfati, J., Bone building: perfect protein, J. Creation 18(1):11–12, 2004; creation.com/bone. Return to text.
  22. Schweitzer, M.H. et al., Molecular analyses of dinosaur osteocytes support the presence of endogenous molecules, Bone 52(1):414–423 January 2013. Return to text.
  23. Sarfati, J., DNA and bone cells found in dinosaur bone, J. Creation 27(1):10–12, 2013; creation.com/dino-dna. Return to text.
  24. 4′,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole, a fluorescent stain. Return to text.
  25. Allentoft, M.E. et al., The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils, Proc. Royal Society B 279(1748):4724–4733,7 December 2012. Return to text.
  26. Allentoft et al., Ref. 25. Return to text.
  27. German: Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule = Federal Technical College. ETH Zürich is ranked 3rd best university in the world in engineering, science and technology. Return to text.
  28. Glass, R.N. et al., Robust chemical preservation of digital information on DNA in Silica with error-correcting codes, Angewandte Chemie [Applied Chemistry] 54(8): 2552–2555, 16 February 2015 | doi:10.1002/anie.201411378. Return to text.
  29. 1 nanometre (nm) = 10–9 m. A DNA strand is 2.5 nm in diameter. Return to text.
  30. Reaction rate depends exponentially on temperature, as per the famous rate equation formulated in 1889 by Swedish physical chemist and Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius (1859–1927). This the rate constant (k) of a chemical reaction to absolute temperature (T) and activation energy Ea: k = A exp (–Ea/RT), where R is the universal gas constant and A is an experimentally determined constant. Return to text.

6,000 years of earth history. That's a long time in our opinion! Over 10,000 free web articles on creation.com. That's a lot of information! Take advantage of this free information but please support CMI as God provides. Thank you. Support this site

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Readers’ comments
John P., Korea, REPUBLIC OF, 13 June 2015

It seems like what Dario Borghino refers is about primitive ssd model that was so unstable.Now it can retain about several decades if there's no other physical electronical and unexpected technical problems.

Owen H., Cameroon, 10 June 2015

Hi Jonathan, I was just wondering why in your article it is stated that DNA is a very UNstable molecule e.g. “DNA is a very complicated molecule, and actually a very unstable one” whereas in the article you referred a reader about the ENCODE recent discoveries, it is stated that “As a help in understanding this, DNA is a very stable molecule ideal for storing information”? Am I to understand that DNA is very unstable chemically but stable for storing information? Because the article on ENCODE says it is actually RNA which is unstable, not DNA. Any light on it will be highly appreciated.

Besides, thank you all at CMI for the great work you are doing, because it has enabled so many people, me included, to better understand the Scriptures and re-affirm its authority and inspiration. God bless.

Jonathan Sarfati responds

The main article documents how unstable DNA is. But compared to RNA, DNA is stable, because RNA has an extra hydroxy group (2′-OH). This makes it more susceptible to electrophilic attack, and can act as a nucleophile and attack the phosphorus atom in the phosphate bond and cleave the bond.

As noted above in the comments, the phosphate links have a negative charge that help repel nucleophilic attacks, and they also mean that the two strands repel each other. This means that nucleic acids are more stable than without the phosphates.

There is a further stabilizing effect between the nucleobases called aromatic π–π stacking. The largely planar nucleobase molecules have a number of non-covalent attractive forces.

James H., Australia, 5 June 2015

There’s a huge amount left out here.

What about the recent discoveries of ENCODE?

Double/triple embedded codes and many biological structures even having their own, unique "codes"?

These recent developments (in the last few years) are major knock out blows against naturalism and evolution.

Most of the stuff in the above article has been "worked around"/conceded by evolutionists and doesn't seem to phase them much these days!

The ENCODE stuff packs the real punch—so much so that the atheists are considering shutting it down!

Jonathan Sarfati responds

Well, we can’t possibly cover everything in one article. Elsewhere on the site we have discussed ENCODE , different coding systems, and multiple embedded codes such as the histone and splicing code. Our books cover much more, such as the resources on the top right of the article.

Nick C., United States, 4 June 2015

I'm wondering, do all organisms have some kind of mechanism that repair damaged DNA or prevent mutations like human cells?

Jonathan Sarfati responds
Mitch C., United States, 4 June 2015

I am curious how the DNA molecule got its name. To call it an ‘acid’, as if its most noteworthy feature is that its pH is less than 7—on par with H2SO4 or HCl—seems to me to totally miss its astounding complexity and its importance as the carrier of genetic information. Can you offer any insights?

Jonathan Sarfati responds

Yes, it really is an acid by a standard chemical criterion, the Brønsted-Lowry definition of base/alkali as proton (H+) acceptor. This is because the backbone of DNA contains the phosphate group, which means that although its acidity is not as strong as H2SO4 or HCl, it is comparable to phosphoric acid (H3PO4 with pKa1=2.12). this Nucleic Acids page from Michigan State University states:

Since a monophosphate ester of this kind is a strong acid (pKa of 1.0), it will be fully ionized at the usual physiological pH (ca.7.4).

It seems to be a good design feature, without which DNA would be even less stable than it is, as the article states:

Mono, di and triesters of the corresponding acid (phosphoric acid) are all known. Because of their acidity (pKa ≈ 2), the mono and diesters are negatively charged at physiological pH, rendering them less susceptible to nucleophilic attack. … Clearly, a polymer in which monomer units are joined by negatively charged diphosphate ester links should be substantially more stable than one composed of carboxylate ester bonds.

A further design benefit of the acidity is that in eukaryotes, the DNA is spooled on tiny protein balls called histones, which enables compaction. The histones are highly alkaline, which means they accept protons so are positively charged, so attract the negatively-charged DNA.

Chris B., Canada, 4 June 2015

Apparently the idea of an SSD losing its data in a month was a misunderstanding according to an interview Kent Smith of Seagate and Alvin Cox by PC World.

There is no expectation that SSDs would lose their data in less than a month in normal conditions.

Link included to article of the interview.

Jonathan Sarfati responds

That's good to know, since I like the idea of SSDs with no moving parts compared with the more common HDDs.

Aleksandar K., Croatia, 4 June 2015

This should also be a lesson for creationists. A big part of success of evolution theory (and every other lie people blindly accept) is due to how terms are conveyed. In short, it is how you say it and not what you say that impresses people. Creationists use terms like 'designed' or 'omnipotent' to describe their basic claims. I suggest a change in terminology. You should use words like 'engineered' and 'technology'. This might seem derogative towards God but it would be the best (or better) approach to the secular world that can only relate to secular terms. The theory that aliens created life is very popular among evolutionists and their blind followers. So you could put your Trojan horse and say that the "alien" could be God. That wouldn't be the end of the road but you could get the attention from people who would normally give you none. You should also come up with catchy phrases. Maybe "God tech is best tech!" Or something like that. Never underestimate the power of simple words or corny phrases. Those who brainwash the population don't!

R. R., United States, 4 June 2015

Very good article. I think the following statement does need to be qualified a bit:

"Even the newer solid state drives must be connected to a power source or else their data will be lost in a few months."

Perhaps just saying that "Even some solid state drives ..." might be good, IMHO.

The issue of power loss after a "few months" does not affect more of the 'newer' drives, also depending on how they're built (e.g. Flash-based lasts longer than, DRAM-based with battery backup, etc).

The flash-based drives can retain data for some years. Even some of my 'newer' (i.e. "newer" as in ~8yrs old) USB sticks that have remained unpowered for 1.5+ years still had their data when I found/checked them recently in May 2015.

Anyway, it's not a big deal, even if the length of my post seems to come across that way. I think you & CMI are doing a very good job and the article is, again, very high quality.

Thanks a lot for your time, effort, and work.

Steve S., United States, 4 June 2015

Evolutionists need mutations to turn one kind into another, but there are intelligently designed error correcting machines to preserve the information which came from the intelligent mind of God.

Kinds reproduce after their own kind as God said.

J. B., New Zealand, 3 June 2015

Another fascinating article! I'm tempted to wonder how unstable DNA was before the fall. I guess it would have been very stable indeed.

But I must take issue with this statement

Even the newer solid state drives must be connected to a power source or else their data will be lost in a few months.

This is not correct. Flash memory which is probably most common in usb ‘sticks’, and is now appearing in solid state drives does not need power to retain data. Expected retention life is of the order of 10–20 years at room temperatures, not a few months.

Jonathan Sarfati responds

I don’t think that the Fall changed DNA stability; that would require some changes in the properties of atoms, and this is not hinted at. In light of what the Fall actually did, it seems more likely that God withdrew some of His sustaining power. So it would be more likely that our DNA repair machinery operated perfectly before the Fall.

For solid state drives, what I said is supported elsewhere. E.g. in a popular-level article about this new technology:

Most of our digital data is stored with technology that is designed to work in the short term, but which can’t really stand the test of time. Standard hard disk drives won’t last more than a few decades and are subject to damage from high temperatures, moisture, magnetic fields and mechanical failures. Even solid state drives, which perform better and are less susceptible to mechanical issues, will lose their data if they go unpowered for more than a few months. [Dario Borghino, DNA storage could preserve data for millions of years, gizmag, 18 February 2015]

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