The future of storage is in DNA?

The future of storage is in DNA?

C C A T A G C A C G T T A C A A C G T G A A G G T A A

The above, partial, DNA sequence is for the human version of the insulin protein. Now imagine that the sequence is synthetic (artificially produced) DNA that holds the beginning of a novel or a film – or the beginnings of the entire film archive of the BFI. Thanks to the work of George Church and his colleagues at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, the idea of using DNA to store vast amounts of data is closer to reality.

Church and his team have managed to encode 5.27 million bits of data into sequences of synthetically produced DNA. They encoded HTML versions of Church’s co-written book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA into the sequences – 70 billion times plus a JavaScript program.

How did they do this? The team converted the book and program into bit form, then created synthetic DNA that copied the sequence of bits. To make the binary code, the A and C nucleobases produced 0, while 1 was made with combining T and G bases.

The encoding attempt beat a record set in 2010 by another group of researchers who had encoded a 7920-bit watermark.

Dense and stable

Due to the stability of DNA at room temperature and its theoretically dense storage capabilities (two bits per nucleotide, “455 exabytes – roughly the capacity of 100 billion DVDs – per gram of single-stranded DNA”) it has huge potential as a long term storage medium.

While on the consumer level, storage at the moment is mainly focused on convincing consumers to adapt to moving their photos and documents online and into the cloud, the enterprise still needs to store data on and off premises, and do so securely. And in the enterprise, hard copies of archived company data often end up occupying large volumes of space in comparison to the size of a strand of DNA.

DNA storage won’t be here tomorrow

There are still plenty of issues DNA storage needs to overcome before it can be used by the enterprise or even consumers. First is cost. The technology used by the Wyss Institute researchers is not cheap, but that’s only because they haven’t developed a method of inexpensive mass production.

The second is that the encoding process used in the recent experiment is one way. There currently is no method of creating rewritable data through the process. This is not necessarily an issue for those who want data archived and in an unalterable state, but would be an issue if DNA storage was going to be used as part of everyday computer systems.

To find out more on George Church’s research on DNA storage, check out the video below.

Header image “DNA” by John Goode used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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