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08/30/2007

What do Bacteria have to do with Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?

Tattoos are only skin-deep, and, besides, we are as yet unable to pass these inky imprints on to our offspring. So why not imprint a message directly onto our DNA — DNA which is not utilized in composing our genes, that is — and have these messages translated to hundreds and thousands of our descendants? This idea is not so far from reality. A team of Japanese geneticists, led by Masaru Tomita of Keio University, successfully wrote — in code — Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity into the genome of a bacterium. The purpose? To demonstrate that DNA is the ultimate information storage material.

“While ink may fade and computers may crash, bacterial information lasts as long as a species stays alive — possibly a mind-boggling million years,” MSNBC paraphrases Tomita.

Approximately 97% of the information contained within the human genome has nothing to do with the miniscule remaining 3% that actually creates the genes that make us what we are. All this leftover DNA — referred to as “junk DNA” — could potentially be a receptacle for whatever information we wish to store and preserve for, well, a long time. Will people want to have something written in the idle DNA of their cells? Perhaps mom would like to chart the Smith family tree. Maybe Uncle Alabaster would like to preserve the greatest symphonies of the eighteenth century. Maybe we want to project our contemporary knowledge into the future — far into the future — so that we can believe that what we do now matters, and will continue to matter, to those descendants of us who still bear our written code.


Or perhaps we will be wary of meddling with our own DNA. Maybe we will not be convinced that our junk DNA is really junk after all.

Since it has been shown that various mammals share many identical stretches of “junk DNA”, some scientists tend to believe that whatever the function of junk DNA, for it to have been preserved for 400 million years, it is clearly of some kind of importance. In order to protect our own human genomes, perhaps instead we will record our manifestos in the genomes of insects. Maybe a new posh trend of the future would be ant colonies with ants who actually contain the knowledge of our human ancestors. Perhaps bacterium will contain religious scripts, famous literature, and scientific writings, as part of their own junk DNA. Should we “go there”? Should we manipulate the genomes of other lifeforms to serve our purpose? Should we be allowed to turn curious grasshoppers into filing cabinets and cuddly caterpillars into the newest form of the compact disc?

Still another question Masaru’s experiment raises: Are there messages already written in the vastness of our junk DNA? Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, people will be paying large sums of money to figure out what their noncoding-DNA “says”. And will they be able to find messages — written by God, aliens, or what-have-you? Probably — those who seek will often find exactly what it is they are looking for (just like Jim Carrey’s character in the movie The Number
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. Will religious figures find hidden messages from God? Will others find messages from the cosmos? Will still others place blame for their actions on the messages mysteriously encrypted in their DNA? Perhaps, perhaps.

And perhaps extraterrestrials will discover our planet at some point in the distant future and discover Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time in our DNA. Or maybe they’ll merely read I Am The Walrus. Only time will tell.

-Kristy Kolb, AMBI Bioethics Intern

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