It’s been 20 years since Massive Attack released Mezzanine, their third album that spawned hits like “Teardrop” and broke them internationally. To mark the anniversary, the band have taken the somewhat unusual approach of encoding the entire album into DNA.
As a press release explains, the band’s Robert Del Naja is particularly interested in the idea that art and artefacts can be created by adding synthesised DNA to paint or ink. The band worked with Professor Robert Grass and his team at ETH Zurich, Zurich-based company Turbobeads, and the US company CustomArray to store the album in DNA molecules. It’s the first time that an entire album has been stored in this way.
“This method allows us to archive the music for hundreds to thousands of years,” says Robert Grass, professor at ETH Zurich’s Functional Materials Laboratory, on the lab’s website. Grass translated the album’s digital audio into genetic code with former ETH scientist Reinhard Heckel. “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,” Grass adds.
A blog post on ETH’s website explains the process by which the album was encoded into DNA strands and stored into 5,000 nano-sized glass spheres that are invisible to the naked eye. The beads are stored in a tiny bottle of water and has a shelf life that won’t expire. The DNA can be removed from the beads at any time. “Compared to traditional data-storage systems, it is quite complex and expensive to store information on DNA,” says Grass. “However, once information is stored on DNA, we can make millions of copies quickly and cost-effectively with minimal effort.”
Mezzanine was always far ahead of its time, not just sonically – it was the first album to be released as a free online stream using the now-ancient RealAudio Player.