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In a First, Archival-Quality Performances Are Preserved in DNA

Songs by Miles Davis and Deep Purple at the Montreux Jazz Festival will live on in the ultra-compact, long-lasting format

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smithsonian.com

If civilization stopped right now, in a thousand years all the magnetic tape, compact discs and hard drives humanity stores its digital media on would have long outlived their shelf lives. But future historians would have a chance to sample a tiny bit of culture: “Tutu” by Miles Davis and “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple are the first archival-quality performances to be preserved in a drop of DNA, reports Clare McGrane at Geekwire.

According to a press release, it's part of an effort by the Montreux Jazz Festival to preserve its massive, 5,000 hour archive of video and audio recordings. Over 50 years, the festival has outgrown its jazz-specific roots and has hosted performances of all sorts of music, including sets from Bill Evans, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Van Morrison, Nina Simone and hundreds of other musical icons. In 2013, the festival was listed on Unesco’s Memory of the World Register, and its archivists have been working for years to find a way to safeguard the performances. DNA storage, which can archive the music for thousands of years, sounded like a perfect solution.

DNA molecules, made up of four nucleotides bases, adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T), can be decoded similar to the way binary codes' strings of 1 and 0s are. The word "smoke," for instance, in DNA becomes GACCGACGTCAGAGC.

DNA storage is an emerging field and is a possible solution to two big problems. First, our current digital media are not stable and do not last long-term. Second, it takes a lot of magnetic tape or millions of hard drives to currently store data. But Robert Service at Science reports that DNA can hold 215 petabytes, or 215 million gigabytes, per gram and, if it is stored in cool, dry conditions, it can last for hundreds of thousands of years.

The work was done in collaboration with the commercial company Twist Bioscience, Microsoft Research, the University of Washington, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

“We archived two magical musical pieces on DNA of this historic collection, equating to 140MB of stored data in DNA,” Microsoft senior researcher Karin Strauss, one of the project’s leaders, explains in the press release. “The amount of DNA used to store these songs is much smaller than one grain of sand. Amazingly, storing the entire six petabyte Montreux Jazz Festival’s collection would result in DNA smaller than one grain of rice.” 

So far, researchers have been able to store books on DNA as well as audio of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” and video of the silent film “A Trip to the Moon.” Last year, the same group working preserving the Montreux music encoded 202 megabytes into DNA, including 100 books and a video from the rock band OK Go.

So why choose these two particular songs? According to the press release, Miles Davis was a natural choice since he was a regular at the festival, producing 20 CDs worth of material and popularizing the venue. Deep Purple was also a festival regular, but the “Smoke on the Water” recording has a particular resonance to the festival. In 1971, a fan fired a flare gun into the ceiling of the Montreux Casino during a Frank Zappa concert organized by Claude Nobs, the founder and driving force behind the Montreux Jazz Festival. In "Smoke on the Water," Deep Purple gives a shout out to Nobs, who helped pull fans out of the burning casino and so it's included in the DNA as a tribute.

According to another press release, the songs were played back with 100 percent accuracy from the DNA using a special data reader at a demonstration at a lab at the EPFL.

Nicolas Henchoz, head of the lab, says the new system changes the way humans look at memory, data and time. Imagine having video, audio, holograms or virtual reality from the ancient Inca or Romans. “For us, it means looking into radically new ways of interacting with cultural heritage that can potentially cut across civilizations,” says Henchoz. Hopefully the Galactic Space Romans in the year 4753 will enjoy Prince’s Montreaux performance in 2009 as much as we do.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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