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All the DNA on Earth

There are some 50 trillion trillion trillion DNA base pairs on Earth, the New York Times reports.

A trio of researchers from the University of Edinburgh sought to calculate all the DNA in the biosphere as part of study of biodiversity.

Hanna Landenmark, a PhD student at Edinburgh, tells the Times that the planet is a sort of supercomputer with DNA as the storage capacity and transcription as its computing power. But to use this information-based approach to study diversity, researchers first must know how much DNA there is.

To come up with their 50 trillion trillion trillion DNA base pair figure, Landenmark and her colleagues quantified the amount of DNA in each of the five major subgroups of life — prokaryotes, plants, animals, protists, and fungi — as well as viruses, as they report in PLOS Biology. For each of those, they converted known quantifications of biomass, number of individuals, or their densities to DNA quantity. For instance, to come up with the amount of DNA included in all prokaryotes, they based their calculation on the estimated total number of cells, 5 × 1030 cells, and the average prokaryotic genome size, 3.21 Mb.

Landenmark tells the Times that though a lot of the data she and her colleagues sought weren't always available — thus their numbers should be considered approximations — it still "was a very useful exercise, because it revealed gaps in knowledge about various aspects of the biosphere that we need to fill."

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