DNA contains information about a living organism. It codes everything in an living being. That’s why it makes sense for corporations like Microsoft to invest in research that studies how DNA can be used to store data. Unlike most of the existing data storage devices out there, DNA doesn’t degrade over time, plus it’s very compact. For example, just four grams of DNA can contain a year’s worth of information produced by all of humanity combined.
As humankind progresses, the amount of data we produce and consume has been growing considerably. Gone are the days when a 1.44Mb floppy disk could fulfill our needs. This continual increase in data necessitates a more robust and durable data storage device. In a study published in the journal Science, Researchers Yaniv Erlich and Dina Zielinski demonstrated how DNA may be the answer to our data storage needs.
Erlich and Zielinski stored six files into 72,000 DNA strands, each 200 bases long. The files included a full computer operating system, a 1895 French film, an Amazon gift card, a computer virus, a Pioneer plaque, and a study by information theorist Claude Shannon. “We mapped the bits of the files to DNA nucleotides. Then, we synthesized these nucleotides and stored the molecules in a test-tube,” Erlich told ResearchGate. “To pack the information, we devised a strategy—called DNA Fountain—that uses mathematical concepts from coding theory. It was this strategy that allowed us to achieve optimal packing, which was the most challenging aspect of the study.”
To retrieve the data, the researchers used DNA sequencing technology and a software to translate the genetic code back into binary. “To retrieve the information, we sequenced the molecules. This is the basic process,” Erlich said. Remarkably, the recovered files were error-free.
Humanity’s means of keeping data intact have greatly improved over the years. We’ve moved from paper to magnetic film to microchips. But DNA presents an even better option. As Erlich explained:
DNA has several big advantages. First, it is much smaller than traditional media. In fact, we showed that we can reach a density of 215 Petabytes per gram of DNA! Second, DNA lasts for an extended period of time, over 100 years, which is orders of magnitude more than traditional media. Try to listen to any disk from the 90s, and see if it’s still good.
Erlich also believes that it’s time to move to a better technology. “[T]raditional media suffers from digital obsoleteness. My parents have 8 mm tapes that are basically useless now,” he added. “DNA has been around for 3 billion years, and humanity is unlikely to lose its ability to read these molecules. If it does, we will have much bigger problems than data storage.”
Asked when this technology could be made available, Erlich replied with an optimistic estimate. “I would guess more than a decade,” he said. “We are still in early days, but it also took magnetic media years of research and development before it became useful.”
Ultimately, research like Erlich’s and Zielinski’s leads to other opportunities to explore a future of biological computers. “This opens the possibility of using molecular biology tools to assist computing,” Erlich said. “Usually, it is the other way around!”