≡ Menu

DNA as Cosmic Code

If you possessed technologies so advanced that you could seed life throughout the cosmos, wouldn’t you leave some marker that would identify your work? We can’t know what a hypothetical extraterrestrial intelligence might do, but we do know enough about human nature to acknowledge the desire for recognition. It shows up every time a new squabble breaks out over who really discovered an exoplanet — humans crave the praise of their fellows. Yes, if humans had life-seeding technologies, you can bet we would leave signs of our craftsmanship.

Consider what the Keio University team working under Masaru Tomito has done in Japan. As explained in a New York Times essay by Dennis Overbye, they’ve inserted copies of the immortal equation E=mc2, along with the date of its derivation (1905) into the genome of a bacterium. Thus we see DNA as a kind of archival medium. Overbye is reminded of Jaron Lanier and David Sulzer’s idea of encoding a year’s worth of the New York Times magazine into the ‘junk’ DNA of a cockroach, the one creature likely to survive even the worst potential disaster including nuclear holocaust. Says Overbye:

If cockroaches can be archives, why not us? The human genome, for example, consists of some 2.9 billion of those letters — the equivalent of about 750 megabytes of data — but only about 3 percent of it goes into composing the 22,000 or so genes that make us what we are.

The remaining 97 percent, so-called junk DNA, looks like gibberish. It’s the dark matter of inner space. We don’t know what it is saying to or about us, but within that sea of megabytes there is plenty of room for the imagination to roam, for trademark labels and much more. The King James Bible, to pick one obvious example, only amounts to about five megabytes.

Leading to the speculation that our own genome may contain some kind of information, assuming that the early Earth was scattered with DNA delivered by an alien species for the purpose of propagating life. But DNA’s mutability reduces the chance that a single ‘message’ might survive. This is why the Japanese researchers added redundant copies of E=mc2 into the bacterial genome, allowing Einstein’s equation to have a chance. Presumably ancient bio-engineers would have done the same.

And I like the way Overbye puts the matter:

The challenge for an erstwhile interstellar Johnny Appleseed is to make the message part of the basic nature of its host.

If that ever turns out to be us, if we find that we are the medium, to paraphrase the late Marshall McLuhan, then, in some sense, we are also the message. Never mind who or what are the intended readers.

Ponder, too, what the implications would be if we really did turn out to be derived from primordial DNA developed just for the purpose by a species we might one day encounter (or, more likely, its descendants). Would we expect to find something like the DNA we’re familiar with on Earth no matter where we went in the cosmos? Allowing the possibility of intelligent species arising billions of years ago, would we expect any trace of the ancient planet-seeding race to remain?

And if there were a message tucked into the vast recesses of our DNA, a message that had somehow survived, what would it be? The key to a further breakthrough in intelligence or technology? Perhaps. But I’m reminded of the glorious stained glass that adorns the cathedrals of Europe. As they went about their work, the artisans who produced these many-hued wonders often inserted real faces into their scenes. King David in the image might bear the likeness of the local baker. Mary Magdalene would suggest the mayor’s wife. Often the artist inserted his own visage somewhere in the picture, a way or surviving, if only in a shaft of patterned sunlight, the world all artists knew to be transient.

Who knows, maybe there’s a face in the stained glass of our DNA. Be sure to read the Overbye essay. He’s a terrific writer — he could hold my attention if we were writing about wallpaper paste. His Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe (Harper Collins, 1991) is one of the great tours de force of modern science writing, at once approachable, elegant and impeccably researched. Needless to say, I have the Times‘ science feed set up in my RSS reader so as not to miss any of Overbye’s work.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris Wren June 27, 2007, 13:04

    This idea’s always been kind of fascinating to me. It might be that instead of coding for a specific message, DNA might be coded with a more generalized set of impulses like “Be fascinated by stars” and “Be curious and explore”, which eventually lead to specific non-coded behaviours like “build radio transmitters to signal your successful transition to technological culture”

  • ljk June 27, 2007, 13:35

    See also this figure and caption:


    FIGURE 3: Nakamura (1986) examined the DNA structure of the SV40 virus. In (a) is shown a part of the genetic structure that the author considered to be a star map. In (b) is a representation of the map of the constellation Eridani.


    Nakamura, H., SV40 DNA: A Message from Epsilon-Eridani?, Acta
    Astronautica, vol. 13, no. 9, pp. 573-578, 1986

    Yokoo, H., and Oshima, T., Is Bacteriophage Phi X 174 DNA a
    Message from an ETI?, Icarus, vol. 38, pp. 148-153, 1979

    Excerpt quote:

    “There have been some speculations that a simple biological system carrying a message and capable of self-replication in suitable environments may be one possible channel for interstellar communication (Yokoo and Oshima, 1979, and Nakamura, 1986). These kinds of ideas have several and severe objections. For example, the impossibility of predicting the environment of the target star in order to favor the self-replication of the molecular structure, the impossibility of avoiding the destruction of the content of the message by molecular mutations, and the impossibility for us to distinguish between a “natural” organism and a real biological interstellar message.”

    The full article here:


  • Brian Swiderski June 27, 2007, 18:51

    Unfortunately, key human behaviors are not embedded in the DNA of older species, and the circuitous route evolution took in arriving at us would appear to argue against some grand Progenitor design. The paleontological record is clear on this: Species adapt to their environment, and change rapidly in response to environmental stresses. To think that we are the inevitable “purpose” of this process simply because we exist is an anthropic viewpoint with, IMHO, highly limited significance.

  • ljk June 27, 2007, 19:58

    Joe Davis is a scientist and artist in residence at MIT. Among other
    things he has promoted the idea of ETI sending messages via DNA
    through interstellar dust spread about the galaxy. He has also placed
    various artworks in the DNA of microbes – see the SciAM article
    linked to this page below:


  • djlactin June 27, 2007, 23:48

    Biologist speaking here. Sorry, this is beyond ‘not even wrong’.

    DNA mutates. If the section where the mutation occurs is important, (ie, it codes for important proteins or RNAs), natural selection will favor advantageous changes: the original sequence will be significantly modified over evolutionary time.

    If the message DID (note the past tense) code for something, mutation plus natural selection would have altered it significantly in 3.5 billion years.

    On the other hand, if the section has no function, selection does not occur and random mutations accumulate over time at a measurable rate (a phenomenon well documented in ‘junk DNA’ [an unfortunate misnomer], and which is used as a molecular clock).

    If the message was in a non-coding section of the genome, the original message has been subjected to about 3.5 billion years of random degradation.

    Mutation is not the only cause of genetic change. Tandem repeats, deletions, transpositions, crossing-over, duplications of chromosomes and genomes, merging of genomes (implicated in the origin of eukaryotes) and lateral gene transfer also contribute to the process. (This is not a complete list.)

    The genome has spent 3.5 billion years in a blender.

    Give me a mechanism where the original message could be engineered to survive this 3.5 billion years of shredding and I’ll consider the possibility. (I might even convert to the ‘Intelligent Design’ camp.) Until then: see sentence 2.

  • Chris Wren June 28, 2007, 1:25

    Well, it was a nice romantic idea while it lasted. Sigh.

  • Pradeep June 28, 2007, 1:42


    I don’t have much to say about the rest of the article, but I’d like to say something about this – “but we do know enough about human nature to acknowledge the desire for recognition”

    Most of the early Indian texts were written by people who didn’t leave any clues as to their identities. They believed that the knowledge that they had to convey was more important to convey knowledge rather than take credit.

  • Ronald June 28, 2007, 4:32

    I strongly agree with djlactin (well, I am also a biologist). In short: the genetic code, particularly in rapidly multiplying micro-organisms, mutates too fast to be of any use as a ‘non-genetic’ message. A bit like cutting up an encyclopedia into separate letters and then allow the wind to play with it.

    However, the idea of seeding of the cosmos with life, either intentional by an intelligence, or unintentional by natural processes such as meteorites, is an entirely different matter and worth some consideration (e.g. statistical analysis: what are chances of a meteorite with micro-organisms, originating from a large impact on a living planet, to hit a habitable but uninhabited planet and survive; probably VERY small for any planet outside the own planetary system).

  • Administrator June 28, 2007, 8:16

    Pradeep is exactly right about many of those early Sanskrit writings, a true exception to the rule about human self-aggrandizement, and one of the reasons I admire such work. We could use more of that spirit in many disciplines today.

  • Ron S June 28, 2007, 11:44

    I’m not a biologist but my understanding is that early on, and with existing simple organisms, the genome is much shorter than ours. The message likely couldn’t have even been put in place at the origin of DNA since there wasn’t room for it. It also doesn’t address life’s precursors to DNA that must have existed as life arose from simpler chemistry. Therefore if there was a message inserted in DNA it would have had to be inserted well along in evolution. Then, as others have noted, degradation of the message would have begun immediately unless it also had a fundamental organic function (like coding for hemaglobin or some such).

  • Athena June 28, 2007, 14:09

    This is a very exciting topic for me. Very briefly, there is no question that DNA is capable of carrying a huge amount of information in a compact format at several levels. As I said in my book, it’s like having a text that can be read simultaneously in Russian, Chinese, Maori, Navajo and Swahili. At the same time, genomes are obviously also a haphazard warehouse of older information — jury-rigged, rather than optimized (if they were optimized, they could easily be backed into a corner when the context changed).

    I have been ill (infected tooth, don’t ask…) but as soon as I get better I intend to write an essay about this issue. I’ll let you know when and where it will appear!

  • Theo June 28, 2007, 15:23

    WRT sankrit texts note that the information was transmitted and yet was also secreted away from the vast majority of the population. Such that it atrophied and has very little relevance today.

    Would not non-accessible information similarly atrophy

  • Heresiarch July 1, 2007, 17:02

    A couple of things: as for a “master plan” behind evolution, we need only look to the recent discoveries in genetic sequencing to find evidence. Supposedly newer genes are present already in much older species. Examples are linked to in the middle of the StarLarvae phylogeny page: http://www.starlarvae.org/Star_Larvae_Phylogeny.html

    Generally, a teleological model of evolution is compatible with science. We just need to recognize the ontogenetic context for evolution. One such model is presented at http://www.starlarvae.org

  • djlactin July 1, 2007, 23:29


    You are very wrong: Evolution is a CONSEQUENCE of random mutation (and other sources of genetic variation) and natural selection and or genetic drift. There is no mechanism that can result in teleology.

    Your “master plan” consists of sequences which are highly conserved over evolutionary time due to their utility: there is no need to propose that they were designed.

    Of course, this is not the forum for such debate. For more information, I suggest Talkorigins.org or pandasthumb.org, or (if you’re in the mood for a significant side-serving of politics) http://www.scienceblogs.com/pharyngula

    We’d enjoy talking to you.

  • ljk July 4, 2007, 18:37

    A new article on Joe Davis, though I don’t like his being called
    a “mad scientist” even if it is meant in jest:


  • Edg Duveyoung July 5, 2007, 10:01

    If I were to design a space traveling sperm, I’d pump it full of stuff it wouldn’t need, but in the mix would be something for every environment, so that wherever the sperm landed it would have a set of instructions to handle its “new matrix.” From there, evolution of the DNA could obscure the original structures. I’d say look at the oldest, least evolved entities for common code that might have some of the original design still intact.

    As for Hindu scriptures being “pure,” the “authors” of them also include in their teachings “how to keep things pure.” This involves a father teaching a son the verses until they are memorized in such an exacting detail as to be, by today’s educational standards, a miracle of learning. A miracle. There’s guys in India who can recite memorized scriptures for hours — error free, and they will pronounce every syllable and phoneme in accord with an almost impossibly demanding discipline that covers not just what is to be memorized, but how the memorization is to be done. It is simply amazing stuff, and it was instituted in India 5,000 years ago.

    Now here’s the strange part: in Hinduism, the “seers” can only come from an ancient lineage of seers — in other words, they recognized that only a father could pass down this knowledge to his similarly DNA-ed son, and that this teaching could not happen perfectly with a different DNA-ed person.

    In mystic circles, this is all ho-hum stuff — they EXPECT that a seer is so in touch with his DNA

  • Edg Duveyoung July 5, 2007, 10:13

    Dang! Hit the submit button by mistake.

    To continue:

    . . . so in touch with his DNA that he can “cognize” new scriptures that have yet to be revealed to humanity.

    I’ve met a few seers, and it’s like being in a huge presence. How would the average reader here feel to shake the hand of Einstein? Like that. These minds are incredible, and western science just sniffs and ignores them all.

    Spirituality is DNA deep, and if one isn’t capable of being subtle enough to resonate with that level of “livingness” in a conscious fashion, then the spiritual truths espoused by such seers will seem to be, well, either gobblydegook or something that must be taken on faith.

    As they say, “knowledge is structured in consciousness.” One has more truth available to one if one expands one’s ability to be aware of the inner spiritual mechanisms, that is, expands consciousness.

    Here’s the logical extreme: a mind is capable of seeing thoughts “being born.” In Sanskrit, they call this the “ritam” level of existence. This might be loosely understood to be “able to read one’s own DNA.”

    Now that’s subtle!!!!!!


  • djlactin July 5, 2007, 19:54


    Here’s an error common to people who do not understand evolution. “Least evolved” simply means “least changed in physical appearance from the common ancestor”; it does NOT mean “their DNA has not changed”. All groups of organisms have been evolving for 3.5 billion years. You, your cat, and a bacterium in a geyser.

    DNA for 3.5 billion years in a blender, in either case.



  • djlactin July 6, 2007, 0:23

    Sorry about previous post. I used greater-than and less-than signs as quote delimiters. Apparently this causes the contained bit to disappear. Here is the full post.

    “I’d say look at the oldest, least evolved entities for common code that might have some of the original design still intact.”

    Here’s an error common to people who do not understand evolution. “Least evolved” simply means “least changed in physical appearance from the common ancestor”; it does NOT mean “their DNA has not changed”. All groups of organisms have been evolving for 3.5 billion years. You, your cat, and a bacterium in a geyser.

    DNA for 3.5 billion years in a blender, in either case.


    “Spirituality is DNA deep,”


    IMO, This discussion belongs in another forum.

  • Administrator July 6, 2007, 15:01

    djlactin, I’ve run into the greater-than, less-than problem recently — must be a bug in WordPress which I hope they’ll fix. If there’s a plugin for it, I’ll install it.

  • ljk December 18, 2007, 11:01

    Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms

    Washington Post Dec. 17, 2007


    Researchers are poised to cross a
    dramatic barrier: the creation of
    life forms driven by completely
    artificial DNA. Scientists in
    Maryland have already built the
    world’s first entirely handcrafted
    chromosome, containing all the
    instructions a microbe needs to live
    and reproduce. Some experts are
    worried that a few maverick
    companies are…


  • ljk January 25, 2008, 9:33

    Scientists create gene map for synthetic life

    Researchers say this is a critical step to creating artificial life

    J. Craig Venter Institute via AP

    By Maggie Fox

    updated 4:30 p.m. ET, Thurs., Jan. 24, 2008

    WASHINGTON – Researchers have assembled the entire genome of a living organism — a bacterium — in what they hope is an important step to creating artificial life.

    The bug, Mycoplasma genitalium, has the smallest known genome of any truly living organism, with 485 working genes. Viruses are smaller, but they are not considered completely alive as they cannot replicate by themselves.

    Bacteria can and do, and the team at the non-profit J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland has been working for years to try to build M. genitalium from scratch.

    Full article here:


    More information here:


  • ljk January 31, 2008, 9:35

    Coding DNA With Secret Messages

    You might think an inner thigh tattoo is a fairly intimate
    piece of writing, but scientists at the J. Craig Venter
    scientist (led by the obviously modest Dr J. Craig Venter)
    have authored a message far more personally placed than
    that. Recently famous for creating the first piece of
    synthetic bacteria DNA, now we find that they’ve
    autographed it.

    In the most amazing piece of graffiti since Neil Armstrong
    scratched “Neil Was Here” in the moon (and if he didn’t,
    he should have), the researchers encoded the name of
    researchers involved in the project into the very genetic
    coding of the organism itself. The translation between
    DNA and our alphabet is based on the system whereby
    various amino acids are represented by letters.

    Full article here:


  • ljk January 31, 2008, 9:49

    Artificial letters added to life’s alphabet

    NewScientist.com news service Jan. 30, 2008


    Two artificial DNA base pairs that
    behave like natural base
    pairs–including being copied
    accurately by the polymerase enzymes
    that replicate DNA inside
    cells–have been created by Scripps
    Research Institute researchers. The
    researchers expect that in the near
    future, the new base pairs will be
    used to synthesize DNA with novel
    and unnatural…


    DNA construction kit self-assembles 3D crystals

    NewScientist.com news service Jan. 30, 2008


    Northwestern University and
    Brookhaven National Laboratory
    researchers have demonstrated a way
    to program strands of DNA to
    assemble nanoparticles into 3D
    structures, using squid-like gold
    nanoparticles with “arms” made of
    DNA. The discovery points towards a
    new way to engineer materials from
    the bottom up. Previously, only flat
    shapes have…


  • ljk February 7, 2008, 10:22

    Pursuing Synthetic Life, Dazzled by Reality

    New York Times Feb. 5, 2008


    “Scientists who seek to imitate
    living cells say they can’t help but
    be perpetually dazzled by the
    genuine articles, their flexibility,
    their versatility, their childlike
    grandiosity,” says New York Times
    writer Natalie Angier. “No matter
    what outrageous or fattening things
    we may ask our synthetic cells to
    do, scientists say, it’s nothing…


  • ljk February 26, 2008, 10:54

    New Way To Store Information Via DNA Discovered

    ScienceDaily (Feb. 25, 2008) — Researchers at UC Riverside have found a way
    to get into your body and your bloodstream. No, they’re not spiritual gurus
    or B-movie mad scientists. Nathaniel G. Portney, Yonghui Wu, Stefano
    Lonardi, and Mihri Ozkan from UCR’s departments of Bioengineering, Computer
    Science and Engineering, Biochemistry, and Electrical Engineering, and the
    Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, are just talented when it
    comes to manipulating DNA.


  • ljk June 13, 2008, 11:36

    Scientists Close to Reconstructing First Living Cell

    ScientificAmerican.com June 10, 2008

    Harvard Medical School researchers
    have built a model of what they
    believe in the first living cell on
    Earth (3.5 to 4 billion years ago),
    containing a strip of genetic
    material surrounded by a fatty
    membrane and capable of replicating.


  • ljk July 3, 2008, 10:39

    First DNA molecule made almost entirely of artificial parts

    Nanowerk News July 2, 2008

    University of Toyama researchers
    have built the first DNA molecule
    made almost entirely of artificial
    parts. The researchers used DNA
    synthesis equipment to assemble four
    artificial bases (basic building
    blocks of DNA) inside the framework
    of a DNA molecule. The unusually
    stable, double-stranded structures
    resemble natural DNA, which also has…


  • ljk March 19, 2009, 22:39

    The emerging science of DNA cryptography

    Physics arXiv Blog Mar. 18, 2009


    A new approach to using DNA fordata encryption, based on how information from DNA is processed inside cells, has been developed by independent researcher Nang King….


  • ljk June 15, 2009, 10:35

    Scripps research team creates simple chemical system that mimics DNA


    “A team of Scripps Research scientists has created a new analog to DNA that assembles and disassembles itself without the need for enzymes. Because the new system comprises components that might reasonably be expected in a primordial world, the new chemical system could answer questions about how life could emerge.”

  • Jjk May 11, 2010, 12:15

    Here is a dumb comment.

    I wonder how much intelligence, and equipment designed and built by intelligent people it takes to (Scientists Close to Reconstructing First Living Cell) to create a simple cell.