Iconic 16th century letter to test new idea for 21st century data storage

The last letter ever written by Mary Queen of Scots is helping to revolutionise the way digital data is stored.

The contents of the 16th century document is being subjected 21st century technology by a
group of scientists to see if it can be stored and successfully retrieved using DNA – the essential blueprint of life.

Mary's signed letter

Mary’s signed letter

The National Library of Scotland is working with the researchers at the University of Edinburgh by supplying the iconic text of the letter – written just hours before Mary was executed in 1587 – so it can be converted into short molecular sequences.

In theory, it can then be stored safely for centuries, in a stable form and at much lower cost than existing technology. These sequences can be rapidly assembled together in any order, using a method resembling a typewriter.

The researchers say such a system would be capable of storing the entire Harry Potter book series 20 trillion times within a single gram of DNA.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots

However, this is not the only type of data that can be stored as the DNA fragments can be arbitrarily assigned values to represent colours or sounds, thus enabling the user to store images, music and any other file that can be stored digitally.

The demand for data storage is increasing at a rate of around 50 per cent a year as the use of smart phones, social media, e-mail and other means of electronic communication grow. Current storage methods require huge data centres that consume large amounts of energy and depend on limited supplies of raw materials such as silicon.

DNA offers an alternative. It is life’s innate information storage mechanism, containing the complete blueprint for all life. The University of Edinburgh undergraduate iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team, which includes students studying biology, computer science, psychology and chemistry, believes it can provide the solution to the world’s storage problems.

Software giant Microsoft recently completed a research project to use DNA as a high density, durable and easy-to-manipulate storage medium. However, this is based on a process that is very expensive and requires specialised machinery and resources. The iGEM team are pursuing a method that is much more affordable and flexible while also being guaranteed to withstand the test of time.

“It is a real privilege to be allowed to use the basic text from the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots to test our DNA storage system,” said Brendan Largey of the iGEM team.

“While there is increasing interest in using DNA in this way, our approach is unique in its security, modularity and affordability. We want our technology to be accessible not only to large scale companies but to anyone with long-term data storage needs.”

Gill Hamilton, acting Head of Digital at the Library said: “We are delighted to be able to support this exciting Scottish-based research. Finding more effective solutions to data storage in the future is something that all libraries, organisations, companies and individuals have a strong interest in. We will be watching progress with much interest.”