Harnessing the Power of Genes

Imagine huge data centers and server farms that swallow up whole acres, busily archiving the myriad of data we store away in the Cloud or send winging across the Internet...imagine that, and you have a pretty fair idea of the current state of information storage.

Movies, images, books, emails, dirty pictures, nasty tweets—the entire wealth of human digital information is stored in these electronic colossi.

Now imagine that same Walmart supercenter-sized data facility fitting on your desk, with all that information safely partitioned and filed away on the very macromolecules that dictate our genetic architecture.

It may sound far-fetched, but computer scientists and electrical engineers from the University of Washington and Microsoft have achieved just this—or at least the first step toward its eventual realization.

"Life has produced this fantastic molecule called DNA that efficiently stores all kinds of information about your genes and how a living system works—it's very, very compact and very durable," explains Luis Ceze, a coauthor of the paper describing the research.

10,000 gigabytes worth of information—equivalent to the movies, images, files and emails contained in 600 smartphones—can be contained within the tiny drop of DNA in the pictured test tube. Credit: Tara Brown Photography/ University of Washington

The Littlest Computers

Unlike the flash drives and hard drives currently used, DNA molecules can store comparable amounts of information at densities millions of times greater; and whereas other media decays quite rapidly, DNA can last for hundreds to thousands of years.

However, the problem is twofold. First, how to convert binary digital information (ones and zeroes) to DNA's quaternary format (adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine nucleobases). This was overcome by fragmenting the digital data into pieces and recording it in DNA molecules that could be dehydrated for easy storage.

The second problem was how to retrieve this mutilated information. Applying methods learned in electronics, the teamed used "random access" memory to reassemble the data—essentially labeling the DNA sequences with an "address" by using a common technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). The needed sequences could then be retrieved from a vast sea of random DNA.

The team managed to store and retrieve four image files on synthetic DNA snippets, demonstrating proof-of-concept. The idea is sound—now all that's needed is the necessary financial investment to overcome the problems of rapid DNA synthesis and sequencing to make the system work.

Electronics is so yesterday. The future is all about biocomputing.

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