I wouldn't normally appear on this site, but that is absolutely believable and theoretically possible in "futurology". The concept simply extends the boundaries of current molecular evolution into protein engineering.
Check my other sites, essentially molecular evolution is a core part of what I do.
The storage units need two components (probably three) to be viable for the design, 'message' to be preserved over vast amounts of time. These are:
- The thing encoding the replication of the DNA is engineered to minimise mutation and that is absolutely feasible by constructing a 'hyper strong proof reading activity' protein(s) (italics is the precise technical word) and probably large numbers of them. So when the 'message' mutates a set of "mutation repair" proteins kick into action" mopping up the error. This happens and would result in replicating with minimal mutation.
- Even when the 'message' (DNA) changes, i.e. mutates, it is engineered to immediately lose functionality, thereby unable to replicate the message. That 'message' (DNA) including the mutations then dies. The 'message' that does not mutant persists and replicates, thus the mutations are always lost. It's called purifying selection and yes it absolutely happens.
- Compensatory mutation theory - this too complicated to explain easily.
However, across the vastness of time, no matter how brilliant the molecular design and protein engineering they couldn't identify every permutation (mutation) that would overcome the purifying selection trap, i.e. mutations start persisting. The first thing the mutated message does is dump is the 'proof reading activity', i.e. the mechanism restricting it from mutating quickly. The 'message' then enters mutation 'free-fall', mutations can occur simultaneously , i.e. within the same instance of time within the same message (and that is very 'dangerous' in this context because of the way compensatory mutations work). Then it's all systems go, and upwards through the complexity of life.
So yeah points 1 to 3 we could see why the original scientists theoreticians and wet-lab were overconfident. The design looks bullet proof, but in DNA ultimately nothing is 'bullet proof'.
I'd better caveat "mutation free-fall". The pure example of mutation free-fall is cancer, there's no question about that, it's no hold bars. Thats not what I had in mind ...
The phenomena where there are sudden bursts of mutations are:
- episodic selection
- periodic selection
- selective sweeps
In contrast to "purifying" or "epistatic" selection, these are systems in rapid selection, they adapt and change. True "free-fall", like cancer, the cell simply mutates itself apart.
Some references for the above 3 processes are given in the notes below. These vast research fields however.
The overconfidence is absolutely correct ... in this area for every success there's been multiple failures. It was thought infectious disease was defeated (yeah right), vaccines got rid of viruses and antibiotics got rid of bacteria ... There have been successes (smallpox was eradicated and probably polio too) but with the benefit of hindsight the original optimism definitely wasn't how its worked out. Those little microbes just keep mutating.
They're a complex issue called "neutral theory" if the "message" is only DNA but if the "message" is stored in the protein sequence that will work.
Storing a message thats under purifying selection would be some feat, certainly at present, but it's not impossible for future generations to develop this particularly via advances in AI. This is the hardest technological feat BTW ... developing point 1 is absolutely doable now, developing point 2 we couldn't do it at present we are simply not at that level at present. What you are doing is forcing function into a "message" and its a level of computation we simply don't have now.
What I would look at is the preservation of bacterial 16S sequence. This can be used to build a phylogenetic tree of ALL bacteria. If life is 1 billion years old, then thats how long it's been around. It contains extreme sequence conservation (for 1 billion+ year). 16S is pure DNA its a much easier concept to understand. There are lots of protein genes, e.g. DNA polymerase, that have massive amounts of conservation. This however is complicated because it's about DNA->proteins and it's really hard to grasp if biology wasn't you thing. DNA polymerase was what I had in mind in the above statements and re-engineering that to leave a message and make that message central to its functionality so purifying selection will preserve it. Purifying selection has preserved these genes for however old life is on earth (1 billion years?) and maintained strong sequence conservation.
The issue is what I am proposing is beyond current technology, but it's built on current technology. Without understanding where we are now it's hard to project that into the future.
The key I would focus on is the overconfidence in a futuristic brilliant technological solution and how that can unravel into something completely unintended. The emotional stuff, the arrogance of brilliance. Getting into the detailed technology is going to be hard because it's spanning lots of areas with microbial evolution. For example, generating electricity in coal fired power stations, at the time it would have been brilliant (obviously a long time ago) ... now with global warming that seems a very bad idea and we don't know the final outcome.