A Time Capsule that will survive One Thousand Years in Manhattan

Submitted by Jaron Lanier, with the collaboration of David Sulzer and Lisa Haney

May 3, 1999


An archive of the New York Times Magazine and other materials will be encoded into the DNA of cockroaches which will be released in Manhattan.


The familiar New York City cockroach predates the city’s geography. It has survived ice ages, earthquakes, famines, and floods. It has watched the dinosaurs come and go. It has resisted determined efforts by mankind to remove it even from individual buildings. It would survive a nuclear attack. It will probably outlive all other contemporary fauna on Manhattan, including humans.

Some of the cockroach’s genes are extremely stable. They have not changed substantially for millions of years, and are therefore extremely likely to remain stable for the next one thousand years. Associated with these genes are DNA sequences known as introns which serve no known purpose. While it is possible that these sequences serve some unidentified function, their content is gibberish.

Recombinant techniques will be used to overwrite this gibberish with the archival materials. While computer memory is made of bits, which exist in two states (zero or one), DNA is composed of four "base pairs"; so it has four states. Therefore a given sequence of DNA can store twice as much information as a similar length of computer memory.

A single cockroach’s introns will easily be able to contain the articles, letters, and other primary texts of one full year’s editions of the Times Magazine.

Certain types of information will be written into mitochondrial DNA sequences, which are inherited matrilinearly and are not subject to sexual recombination, instead of introns. DNA in this location is not as stable, but will nonetheless remain useful for the required period of time. Mitochondrial DNA is well suited to data such as digitized photographs, audio recordings, and crossword puzzles. The continuous nature of photographic and audio materials makes them useful even if there are slight modifications to the data; indeed even the best preserved photographs are constantly undergoing slight changes which are not perceived by casual observers. While crossword puzzles are made of discrete information (text), it is presumed that the further in the future the puzzle is decoded, the more advanced the civilization will be; therefore any errors caused by the passage of time will simply generate an appropriately difficult puzzle.

Once an archive is selected, it will be written into a computer file and coded into DNA base pairs. The sequences will then be synthesized by conventional protocols. Then the archival DNA will be ligated into cockroach intron DNA via injection into eggs.

Once the archival roaches are born they will be cultivated until the population achieves at least the specified volume (8 cubic feet). The roaches will be released in selected locations in Manhattan. Further cultivations and releases will follow, carefully calculated to assure that the archive is widespread enough to survive for the specified period of time.

Within approximately fourteen years, the archival roaches will inexorably become so endemic as to become an ubiquitous and permanent feature of the island.

In order to decode the archive, a future historian would make use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to amplify and then sequence the fragments, turning the DNA sequence once again into the contents of a computer’s memory. In order to facilitate decoding, the archive will not make use of data compression or encryption technologies.


This proposal is not intended as a joke or social commentary. It is the best technological solution to meet the demands of the constraints presented.

a) The time capsule is to be placed in Manhattan, yet last for 1000 years. Manhattan is one of the least desirable locations on Earth for archival storage. It is a likely target for terrorist or military attack during the specified period of time. Furthermore, Manhattan might very well be subject to political pressures that would cause future residents to make unplanned use of its spaces and other resources. Even "sacred ground" such as Central Park, might become vulnerable to exploitation because of unforeseen changed in technology and society. For instance, travel might become restricted and parklands on Manhattan might be needed to produce food. New forms of transportation, such as spaceports, might become available that require large amounts of space and are demanded in population centers rather than at the peripheries, where contemporary airports are found. New space might be required to house artificial phases of human life, such as cryogenically preserved bodies or disembodied brains. Existing residential areas will be needed for conventional human living, so spaces such as Central Park might be drafted into unforeseen service. The archival cockroach will be a robust repository, able to survive almost all conceivable scenarios.

b) The requirement that the time capsule survive rising oceans and other ecological catastrophes presents a dilemma. Suppose a conventional capsule was placed on high, sacred ground, such as the grounds of the cloisters. As the seas rise, that ground will become ever more needed for habitation and vital services; it will lose its sacred status in precisely those scenarios in which that status would be most needed. The archival cockroach occupies the whole of the island and is immune to changing ideologies of land and resource use.

c) The desire was expressed to have multiple copies of the time capsule, including perhaps one in the basement of the New York Times. The archival cockroach easily meets this requirement.

d) The archival cockroach exceeds the materials specifications: it is water tight, impervious to changes in weather, easy to locate, impossible to destroy. The data will last for well beyond the initial millennium specified.

e) Because the archival cockroach will exist in so many copies, it will be easy to read the data without altering or destroying the archive. This is the most attractive aspect of the archival cockroach. No future historical revisionist will be able to locate and destroy each copy.

Potential problems and solutions to them:

a) Will there be ethical or public safety objections? The DNA in which the archival data will be placed is nonfunctional. The cockroaches will not have an altered biological function. They will also not be harmed or distressed in any way.

b) Will genetic drift erase the data? In order to combat this problem, seven copies of each article will be placed in introns. This number has been calculated to assure that data will be recoverable even after the most severe genetic drift that might occur within the specified period of 1000 years.

c) Any single genotype, such as the archival genotype, would be vulnerable to changes in the environment. This is why biodiversity is important in wild populations. The initial population of archival roaches will be generated from a wide ranging sample of roaches in residence in New York City (Periplaneta americana). In this way, pre-archival biodiversity will to some degree be represented in the archival population.

d) If other cities choose to adopt copycat archival strategies, there is a danger that roaches imbedded with an archive of, say, the Washington Post, would interbreed with carriers of the New York Times archive. In that case the roaches of Philadelphia would eventually contain a mixed text record. This is not as great a difficulty as it might seem. As significant sequence similarity is required for recombination to occur, genetic crossover between Washington Post and New York Times articles is extremely unlikely. Indeed, if crossover were to occur, an earlier of instance of plagiarism or reprinting would be implicated. At any rate, as long as each article is stored with its proper reference data, it will be possible for future historians to reconstruct both archives from a sample of roaches.

e) How will historians know that the material is present? The beginning of each archival segment will be comprised of a digital sequence that serves as the "masthead". This sequence will spell out "New York Times Magazine Time Capsule, 2000AD". A "Rosetta Stone" graphic will be widely reproduced. It will contain the masthead base pair sequence represented graphically, along with the letters the base pairs represent, pictures of the mouth positions associated with each letter, and pictorial representations of the cockroach. This graphic will be published in the magazine, of course, but will also be chiseled into all future city monuments. It will also be etched in industrial artificial diamond disks the size of CDs. One thousand of these disks will be hidden in locations in Manhattan.

The team:

Lead designer Jaron Lanier is joined by Dr. David Sulzer, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry, Columbia University. Dr. Sulzer will supervise the design, sequencing, and ligation of the archive. Lisa Haney, technical illustrator, is responsible for presentation graphics as well as the design of the Diamond Disk Rosetta Stone.


This project could be completed for the given budget of $75,000 at some point in the very near future, as the costs of biotechnology services come down. In order to complete it before the year 2000, it will be necessary to accept a significantly higher budget and make use of available tools and services.

Operon Technologies’ published charge for creating DNA sequences is 60 cents per base pair, but we are confident we will be able to negotiate a substantial price break due to the quantity we require.

Since four base pairs are required to contain the information of one byte, and one byte is used to represent each letter in the common ASCII format, sequencing will cost $2.40 per letter, unless we negotiate a discount.

A selective archive should fit comfortably in a 1000 page book. Assuming a rate of approximately $1 per letter after negotiations, a page of text will be sequenced for approximately $1000. The archive can therefore be created using existing commercial services for under $1,000,000. It need only be sequenced once, even though it will be inserted seven times into the cockroach genome in order to achieve redundancy.

The cockroach genome must be mapped. This might sound daunting, but it must be remembered that the cost of genome mapping is falling rapidly. The cockroach genome is presumed to be similar in size to that of the grasshopper; around 10,000 million base pairs, or about three times the size of the human genome. There are probably about 15,000 cockroach genes with roughly 5 introns per gene. The cockroach easily has over a billion base pairs in its introns, which will have a capacity to represent over 250 million letters. That is far in excess of what is needed for the archive, even with the requirement of redundancy.

Plasmids, enzimes, vectors, and microinjection paraphernalia will be needed- totaling approximately $126,500. Housing and care for the cockroaches and their eggs will be first rate, but will still only cost only a few thousand dollars. Even though DNA has not been introduced into cockroaches before, the technique is already established for Drosophila flies and some mosquitoes. A research staff will be established in Manhattan in order to adopt these techniques to cockroaches. While the initial DNA microinjections will be expensive, costs will fall once the techniques are better understood. Total budget for staff and physical plant should come in at approximately $1,132,000 up until the time of the release of the archive into the environment.

The Diamond Disk Rosetta Stones will cost approximately $193 per disk. This technology is also becoming less expensive at a rapid rate, so it would make sense to wait a few years to fabricate and place the disks.

It must be re-emphasized that, while at today’s prices this proposal must be considered as a "conceptual" entry, prices are falling so rapidly that the given budget constraint can be met in the very near future. It would be entirely reasonable to select and capture the cockroaches at the present time, display them to the public for a few years, and then insert the archive into their eggs once prices have come down to the specified level.


The Archival Cockroach is shown in top and side views. Inserts picture the encoding of text taken from the May 2, 1999 edition of the New York Times Magazine.