As with most great ideas, like calling your ex at three in the morning, more than a few beers are usually involved. It would be interesting how many ideas that once seemed outlandish and then came to fruition were developed in a pub or bar somewhere.

Neither Ewan Birney nor Nick Goldman can remember exactly how they came up with the idea of storing all the world’s knowledge in DNA. They know it happened in the bar of the Gastwerk Hotel in Hamburg, and that many beers were involved. They may or may not have scrawled their ideas on a napkin. “It must have involved a pen or pencil because I can’t think without holding one,” says Goldman. “It would’ve involved a lot of hands from me,” says Birney.

As science continues to discover ways to developed improved genomic data the technology used to continue that improvement doubles every six months allowing scientists to save twice the amount of data for the same price. The problem with that is Moore’s law. While the amount of data that’s able to be extracted might double every six months the technology used to store that data only doubles about every two years. “And at some point, not too far in the future, you would run out of either disk space or money,” says Goldman.

…beers in hand. They realised that the big problem was the cycle of obsolescence that all data-storing technologies go through. Old machines are junked in favour of new hardware (remember VCRs?) and any data stored on out-of-date media must be re-read and re-written onto the medium du jour, all at great expense. “We thought: Isn’t there some other nano-machine that would allow us to store digital data?” says Birney. Both of them start laughing—the answer was so obvious. “We said: Duh! It’s going to be DNA.”

So the next time you’re drunk and your brain tries to convince you that it’s a good idea to get naked and run out onto that baseball field just remember, you could be doing much more valuable things with your beer battered brain.

Posted by James Poling

A socialist, tinkerer, thinker, question asker and all around curiosity seeker. If you'd like to reach me you can use the contact link above or email me at jamespoling [at] gmail [dot] com.

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