Chicago-born electro-pop band OK Go, known for their wildly entertaining music videos that have racked up to over 200 million views on YouTube, are now on the forefront of a new science that revolutionizes music storage. In 2012, the band’s frontman Damian Kulash began what would become a thrilling venture with famed biochemist Sri Kosuri.
At a storytelling conference at Harvard, Kulash discovered Kosuri’s recent accomplishment of converting the entire contents of a 53 thousand word book to DNA. The book? Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA, by George Church and Ed Regis. Amazingly, they were then able to fit 70 billion copies of the book into a tiny vial. “Oh that was a bit of fun,” says Dr. Church. “We calculated the total copies of the top 200 books of all time, including A Tale of Two Cities and the Bible and so on, and they add up to about 20 billion. We figured we needed to go well beyond that.” DNA is so dense and energy efficient, in fact, that 455 billion gigabytes can fit in one gram. Theoretically, four grams of it could hold a year’s worth of information from the entire planet’s database.
Kulash was riveted. “If you can do text as DNA, you can do any form of data as DNA. Immediately what I thought of was: ‘I want my music to be made of DNA!'” Translating the binary code of any data, including digitized music, to the building blocks of these versatile genetic strands is actually quite simple from an engineering standpoint. Digital information is stored in the 1s and 0s of binary code, whereas genetic information is stored on four chemical units called Adenine (A), Cytosine (C), Guanine (G) and Thymine (T). Using computer software, scientists convert binary to quaternary, assigning (A) and (C) to the 1s, and (G) and (T) to the 0s. Voilà! Music in a bottle!
OK Go was planning to release their next album in this format: “In theory if we sell one little vial of our new album as DNA we will have sold trillions and trillions of copies, which I think would make it the highest selling album of all time”, says Kulash. “Only one person would have all those copies and they would need a laboratory to read them, but hey, technicalities.” A lot of buzz was building around the anticipation of this iconic move in music and science; but alas, an interception by the FDA killed their plans. “I guess because they don’t want people distributing printed genetic material willy nilly cuz that could cause serious health problems,” says Kulash. “But it’s fun to think that our album is the only one blocked by the FDA.” Nothing like a positive attitude to keep things rolling. OK Go is still creating revolutionary projects using music, art and technology, focusing on a positive societal impact. Their newest project, called Ok Go Sandbox, was released today in collaboration with the University of St. Louis’ Playful Learning Lab. It provides an online resource for PK-12 educators, using Ok Go’s music videos to create engaging learning experiences in science, math and technology. Find out more here.
Click here to read January’s article, Music Stored in DNA, where I first introduced the topic.
Photo by Abby Gillardi (IMG_9975) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]