Separately, Laura Dawson and Kat Meyer pointed me to a post on ScienceNow, a blog hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. There, science writer John Bohannon described work done to successfully encode a genetics book onto less than a picogram of synthetic DNA.
In his report, Bohannon describes how the components of the book are managed and reassembled:
"Each DNA fragment also contains a digital "barcode" that records its location in the original file. Reading the data requires a DNA sequencer and a computer to reassemble all of the fragments in order and convert them back into digital format."
The conversion process worked pretty well. Researchers reported error rates comparable to optical media (and better than magnetic drives). It's not a commercial technology at this point, as the encoding/decoding equipment remains pretty specialized.
When Dawson sent me the link, I was intrigued by the potential for high-density storage. In an offline exchange, though, she made a more important observation. The book world already has a functional equivalent for the "digital barcode" that Bohannon describes: the digital object identifier (DOI).
The DOI "was conceived as a generic framework for managing identification of content over digital networks, recognising the trend towards digital convergence and multimedia availability". Announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1997, DOI is now in its fifth iteration, with the latest update released in April.
Although DOI has made inroads in scholarly, research, scientific and technical publishing, it has not been of as much use in less cited, more linear texts. As characteristics of the book and the internet continue to merge, though, the use of DOI as a persistent marker will likely increase in value. That might give the (not so) old identifier more than a bit of new life.
A brief note: This is the second time John Bohannon has been cited here. Earlier this year, "Dance vs. Powerpoint: A Modest Proposal" (a TED talk) inspired a few thoughts about breaking through presentation clutter.