DNA: The Future of Data StorageAugust 22, 2012 10:51 am ·
Have more music, photos and movies than your hard drive can handle? Try DNA. Yes, that’s right. The nucleic acid that contains the genetic code for the function and development of all known living things stores information better than your local hard drive does. Recently, George Church, a synthetic biologist, and a team of researchers at Harvard Medical School have successfully encoded and read back an entire genetics book on less than a picogram (one trillionth of a gram) of DNA; this included text, images and a computer program all printed with an inkjet printer on a tiny glass chip.
The entire process is slow, but the storage capacity is exponentially greater than any of the traditional methods in existence now. DNA can hold up to 455 billion gigabytes of information in a single gram; that’s roughly 200 billion hours of movies. Other advantages, besides the impressive storage capacity, is that DNA can be copied easily and is incredibly stable. While the process is not perfect, it has proven to be more reliable than DVDs and traditional hard drives, with only two errors per one million bits. That’s the equivalent of a few single-letter typos in the entire text. The one thing they have not be able to figure out is how to delete and overwrite fragments of code, but with the amount of data DNA can hold, it hardly seems like much of a problem.
While other researchers have tried to encode data into cells, they have run into the problem of the cells dying out and therefore data being lost. DNA does not seem to have that same problem. If properly stored, DNA can last for millions of years .
What makes DNA encoding so dense is the fact that its information is stored three dimensionally. All other forms of storage happen in two dimensions, greatly limiting their capacity. Even molecular storage is limited to two dimensions.
Of course to read something encoded into DNA, you would need a DNA sequencer and other hardware and software. But as previously mentioned, for this test, Church used an inkjet printer to encode the DNA on to a glass chip. The DNA was split into fragments as opposed to long sequences which become harder and more expensive to create. During the process, the Sequences were duplicated thousands of time in order to reduce the amount of error when being read back. The computer program used to read the data compares all the redundant fragments to check for errors.
So what does this mean for the future of digital storage? Massive DNA archives that last for thousands of years, without any need for bias to try to save space. Try not to get too excited just yet, though. Because of the process length and cost, you won’t be seeing any DNA storage devices available for quite some time. At best, the technology will be available in ten years as the cost of DNA sequencing continues to drop and the rate at which we can record and read the stored information continues to decrease.
So, forget about binary, it’s all about A, C, T, G. And the nerd applications are endless. With DNA comes the risk (or perceived risk) of actually modifying living cells to act on the DNA coded programming. We’re still a long ways off from the threat of Cylon attack, but it’s an interesting idea to entertain. Couple DNA archiving with quantum computing and it makes BSG and Mass Effect seem not so far-fetched.