Cathy Freeman’s Olympic victory etched into Australia’s DNA 20 years on

Cathy Freeman’s triumphant Olympic moment two decades ago officially became part of Australia’s genome Friday, with the nation’s archivists using synthetic DNA data storage to preserve the footage.

As footage of Freeman’s 400m dash to Olympic glory was projected onto the sails of Sydney Opera House, the National Film and Sound Archive(NFSA) celebrated the digitisation and successful storage of the video in synthetic DNA.

“Tonight our celebration is two-fold, the anniversary of that race… and we celebrate the awesome technological innovation,” NFSA chair Gabrielle Trainor said.

The announcement marked exactly 20 years since Freeman raced into sporting history by becoming the first Aboriginal person to win an individual gold medal.

The DNA storage works by converting data stored in a computer’s binary code of ones and zeros -— in this case digitised footage -— and transcribing it into DNA code made of four chemical rungs: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine.

That code can then be turned into molecules, using lab-dish chemicals and stored. 

The contents are then “read” by sequencing the DNA — as is routinely done today in genetic fingerprinting — and turning it back into computer code.

By converting the footage into synthetic DNA it could potentially survive thousands of years and on an almost incomprehensibly tiny scale.

In comparison, the master copy of the race remains in Switzerland on magnetic tape, an already obsolete technology.

“With synthetic DNA, we could store the NFSA collection six times over in matter the size of a matchstick, so it’s a very exciting prospect,” NFSA chief executive Jan Muller said.

Although the technology is not new, it marked a first for the nation’s archives and a step towards experimenting with more sustainable, long-lasting storage, Muller said.

“Would there be anything better to store on DNA than a moment that is part of the DNA of the country?” 


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