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article imageOp-Ed: DNA could help historical documents last millions of years

By Elizabeth Brown     Mar 17, 2015 in Technology
A team of researchers in Switzerland may have found a way to preserve the world's greatest historical documents for millions of years to come.
In February 2015, researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich revealed that they had used DNA technology to preserve two documents by embedding them in double helixes that had been specially prepared in the chemical compound silica. The country’s Federal Charter from 1291 as well as Greek philosopher Archimedes’ ancient text “Methods of Mechanical Theorems” were the two documents selected for encoding. The researchers then exposed the embedded documents to a simulation of what they might experience chemically over the course of hundreds of years of storage, and found their condition to be nearly identical at the end of the process.
The Challenges of Long-Term Historical Document Preservation
Depending on storage conditions, most paper can only last for a few hundred years without its quality being severely compromised. While huge advances have been made in the field of digital scanning of documents for preservation, the researchers on the Swiss project argue that DNA is a longer-term alternative, because unlike that of the fast-changing world of digital technology, the language of DNA will never become obsolete. While the innovation is an exciting development for historians, archivists, and researchers, mainstream application of the DNA document storage process is still a long way off, and time is of the essence when it comes to disintegrating documents holding precious data.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the field of long-term historical document preservation has to do with the ability for the future generations or even civilizations to translate the carefully safeguarded information in a future filled with unforeseeable technological, cultural, and biological advancements and setbacks.
Current Document Preservation Technology
The digital document preservation industry won’t be waiting around for the process of DNA information storage to catch up. Historical societies, government archives, and individuals wishing to preserve their own personal significant documents currently have access to a wide array of technology including hyperspectral imaging, which aims to preserve not only the text and pictures recorded on historical documents, but high resolution images of the ink and paper itself as well. Historians often find as many clues about the past in the examination of the physical and chemical makeup of old documents as they do in the recorded information itself.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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