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For the past week, I’ve been holed up nights in a warehouse attempting to print the human genome on punched tape. Punched tape is an old data storage medium that encodes binary data by punching holes into paper tape that is typically rolled up like a reel of film. The reference human genome weighs in at some 3.2 billion base pairs and 3.2 billion is a big number. Really big. After a week of off-and-on printing with two punch machines, I’ve used up around 50 rolls of paper and the the work area is already starting to fill up but I’m not even 5% through one measly little chromosome yet.
This project uses a pair of tabletop paper tape reader+punch combo units made by GNT in the early 80s, although even back then punched tape was pretty dated. These machines use eight holes per row of data, with each hole encoding one bit of information (so one byte per row). At ten rows of holes per inch, storing 1MB requires about 2.5km of tape.
Here’s how the four bases we all know and love are encoded
A very simple python script reads the genetic data line by line, encodes it into a bit pattern for printing, and sends the binary data to punch machines over a serial connection.
No one manufactures real punched tape any more, so I had some rolls custom made and shipped across the country on a pallet (thanks Papertec!) The ten inch diameter reels I am using hold around 2000 feet or so of tape, and take about one hour and ten minutes to print. This means that printing the entire human genome—with its decadent 3.2 billion base pairs—would require approximately 13,300 reels of paper tape with a cumulative length of some 5000 miles. Printing would also take two years running two punches 24/7.
The time between tape changes is pretty damn close to one hour and eight minutes too…) Sadly though, as I only have 500 reels of tape to work with, the best I can hope for is under 4% of the genome. More realistically, I may make it through 200 rolls in my month of printing.
originally posted by: thedigirati
8-bit bodot teletype, ah, those were the days on ship trying to type as you slide by in heavy waves, Fun stuff trying to keep up with 30 wpm..
Flash Z message, get it to to the Captin ASAP
"We have gone to war sir"
His face went white........