British electronic music icon Massive Attack is marking the 20th anniversary of the release of its most successful album – Mezzanine – by having it stored in DNA molecules. Digital audio will be translated into genetic code and stored in DNA strands housed in tiny glass beads.

Mezzanine was Massive Attack's third studio album, and the one that got the band international recognition thanks to powerful single releases like Teardrop (with Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins on vocals) and Risingson. It was released in April 1998 and went straight to the UK Albums Chart top spot, and remains the group's most successful to date.

Transferring the album to DNA storage has been undertaken by Professor Robert Glass from ETH Zurich's Functional Materials Lab and his colleague Reinhard Heckel of Rice University, based on techniques developed 3 years ago that resulted in the Swiss Federal Charter of 1291 being stored in DNA. "What is new about the project with Massive Attack is that this technology is now also being used commercially," said Grass.

The digital audio was first compressed down to 15 MB using the Opus codec, which is considered better quality than the popular MP3 format. "While the information stored on a CD or hard disk is a sequence of zeros and ones, biology stores genetic information in a sequence of the four building blocks of DNA: A, C, G and T," explained Grass.

This data will now be divided between 920,000 short DNA strands by an unnamed US company before the molecules are poured into 5,000 glass spheres – each just 160 nanometers in diameter. All of the spheres will be stored in a single small bottle of water, but will be too small to be seen by the naked eye. This process is expected to be completed within the next 2 months.

"This method allows us to archive the music for hundreds to thousands of years," said Grass. "Compared to traditional data-storage systems, it is quite complex and expensive to store information on DNA. However, once information is stored on DNA, we can make millions of copies quickly and cost-effectively with minimal effort."

Source: ETH Zurich

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