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A Billion-Year-Old Information Technology | Adam Marblestone

Did you know that information technology is over a billion years old?

Adam Marblestone describes DNA as an information technology.  In the same way that digital technology uses sequences of 0’s and 1’s, the molecular language of “ATGC” in DNA could be considered a universal code too.  “DNA was the first information technology that the universe invented,” Adam tells us.

As Adam points out, “Evolution has a billion year head start” in engineering at a molecular level through DNA.  Yet it is only recently that scientists have examined how important DNA might be to technology, as an essential tool to help solve some of our biggest challenges.

Using this molecular code, DNA can be used to build things – just like Lego bricks – which can be manipulated into an infinite number of objects smaller than living cells.  Because of the uniqueness of each DNA sequence, “there is only one soul mate to match and stick to each piece,” Adam explains.  DNA chains then self assemble – each strand seeks and finds its perfect match, in effect building tiny machines.

As an undergraduate intern, Adam helped to author caDNAno software with Shawn Douglas, now a professor at UCSF, and William Shih of Harvard.  In caDNAno, the user draws a shape and the software generates the DNA sequences required to make the shape, so easily that untrained students routinely use it.

But what object could one create? For example, a group of college freshman designed a DNA box, a molecular container which might be used to deliver drugs to a precise location in the body.

The consequences are revolutionary.  Adam explains that the potential of DNA goes beyond just building tiny machines, giving rise to a new informational realm inside living systems.  We are just beginning to understand the principles that guide the DNA design system, never mind its potential utility.

Adam closes with a thought-provoking challenge, “If you could write any message using DNA, what would you create?”

Read more about Adam’s exciting work at www.adammarblestone.org.