Massive Attack are releasing an album in a new format: DNA

For Mezzanine’s 20th anniversary, the band have encoded the album in strands of synthetic DNA. One spray can contains around one million copies.

Massive Attack’s Mezzanine was the first album to be streamed for free online when it was released 20 years ago, and the dark, paranoid beats and sparse samples have infused music ever since. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the pioneering Bristol dance act offers another world debut: the re-issued Mezzanine is the first album ever to be released encoded as strands of synthetic DNA.

This week, Massive Attack are announcing a limited-edition spray can containing approximately one million DNA copies of the album. Each copy of the album is translated into a total of 920,000 DNA fragments and then stored in tiny glass beads – a process that takes over two months. There will also be an art print by band member and artist Robert Del Naja, ink-jet-printed using ink containing Mezzanine DNA.

“The four DNA bases adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine are coded into binary digital audio,” Del Naja says. “If you were to spray, scrape it off the wall and have it analysed in the correct conditions, you’d be able to play the album back – as soon the right player becomes available.”

The band worked with scientists at TurboBeads, a commercial spin-off from Swiss science, engineering and mathematics university ETH Zurich, to adapt technology pioneered by maverick US biotechnologist Craig Venter when he created a synthetic chromosome of a bacteria species in the laboratory, with four “watermarks” written into its DNA.

Robert Grass, professor at ETH Zurich’s Functional Materials Laboratory, and his colleague Reinhard Heckel used similar chemical techniques to translate Mezzanine’s digital audio into genetic code. “We store digital information in a sequence of zeros and ones, but biology stores genetic information using the four building blocks of DNA,” Grass explains. “We compressed Mezzanine’s digital audio then coded it as DNA molecules by converting the binary 0s and 1s into a quaternary code – with adenine representing 00, cytosine representing 01, guanine representing 10 and thymine representing 11. The resulting DNA resembles natural DNA in every way, although it contains no useful genetic information.”

The idea of storing information on DNA has been around since Mikhail Neiman, a Soviet physicist, published his works in the journal Radiotekhnika in 1964-65, but the first successful execution was in 2012, when Harvard biologist George Church encoded one of his books in DNA. Using an inkjet printer, Church embedded short fragments of chemically-synthesized DNA onto the surface of a tiny glass chip, converting data into DNA’s four-letter alphabet. Each DNA fragment contains a digital “barcode” that records its location so that they can theoretically be rearranged back in order.

Initial costs to code digital into DNA are relatively high – $650,000 for 20mb of data. Once the transfer is complete, Grass says, you can make millions of copies more or less for free. At the moment, the MinION from Oxford Nanopore is the only portable real-time device for DNA and RNA sequencing. The Nanopore sequencer is about the size of a USB stick and costs around £75,000. The MinION would take roughly a week and a powerful computer to ‘play’ Mezzanine, but Grass expects faster devices soon.

“The storage potential of DNA is huge,” del Naja says. Indeed, one milligram of the molecule could store the complete text of every book in the Library of Congress and have room to spare. “If you think about DNA versus the ridiculous amounts of server farms that have got to be cooled 24/7 all around the world, this looks like a much better solution going forward. It allows us to archive music for hundreds to thousands of years.”

The band has always pushed technology to its limits, he explains, from the days “when we were just playing a sound system at parties and pushing volume as high as it could go,” Del Naja recalls. “Since then all of our music has been based on sampling and looping.”

Massive Attack worked with Andrew Melchior at technology consultancy 3rd Space Agency – the man who helped Björk convert her performance of “Stonemilker” into virtual reality for her 2015 MOMA show. Melchior expects a future synthetic DNA culture bank along the lines of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is storing seeds against possible doomsday scenarios.

“The advantage with DNA is that our civilisation could crash into dust and rebuild itself using entirely different technology, meaning they couldn’t access our computers or disks,” Melchior explains. “Since every human carries DNA, we can expect any future civilisation to work out how to play back DNA-stored information. Which means the first thing a future civilisation would learn about us might be Mezzanine.”

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

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