Can We Really Use DNA To Store Digital Data?

We’ve all faced the problem where we run out of space on our computer. With too much music, podcasts, e-books, films, games and cat videos taking up all the space some of it has to be deleted to fit the latest downloads on. It’s getting better but still there’s not enough space. Over the past few years, we have become accustomed to seeing a wide range of novel data storage methods, from cloud computing to portable memory sticks. But it’s going to get even stranger…

A recent study published in Nature Magazine has suggested that DNA could soon be used to archive digital data for thousands of years, which in my opinion, is better than your bog standard re-writable CD!

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory-European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), successfully managed to store a scholarly paper, a video-clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s eponymous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets in a DNA strand the size of a speck of dust. This data was equivalent to around 760 kilobytes of data, and was read back out with 100% accuracy.

Surprisingly, one gram of DNA is purported to be capable of holding up to two petabytes of data, which in current terms, is the equivalent of somewhere around three million CDs.

Using scientific wizardry, the UK team of researchers managed to convert the binary 1s and 0s of digital information into DNA code, which itself consists of a four-letter alphabet. This newly-converted DNA code was then used to create synthetic strands of DNA.

This exciting form of DNA is viewed as an advanced form of media storage, as it is capable of packing the huge levels of variation & complexity associated with organic life, into the smallest amount of biological matter.

Another bonus of storing data in this ‘digital DNA’ is that it doesn’t require any electricity; the researchers used woolly mammoth DNA as a classic example. DNA can last for an incredibly long time if it is kept cold, dry and dark; woolly mammoth remains have been kept in these conditions by chance for thousands of years and researchers are still able to routinely sequence woolly mammoth DNA.

According to the researchers, government and historical data would be best suited to this form of digital DNA storage, as it doesn’t need to be used every day. For example, once the historical and government data is encoded in DNA, it could be stored safely in a secure vault until the time came that it was needed again.

Another advantage is that this data would always be able to be read due to the fact that there will always be DNA-reading technology on earth, providing there are DNA-based life forms on earth (and providing that whatever form of DNA-life is on earth, they are technologically sophisticated)!

However, before you get your hopes up, and dream of being able to download the entire history of Google into your own genome, the synthetic DNA cannot be incorporated into a genome; if you managed to get the synthetic DNA inside you, it would be degraded and disposed of.

However, at this current point in time, this type of storage is astronomically expensive, due to the costs associated with synthesising the DNA in the lab. This means that for the foreseeable future, we will have to make-do with current storage media, such as USB Memory Sticks and data storage tapes. Luckily, as is the case with the most technical innovations, as the processes and technologies involved become faster and improve, the cost of synthesising DNA will become much more affordable. This means that it is highly likely that we will be seeing DNA storage systems on the Viking Direct website by the turn of the century. And we’d still probably be using it all up for cat videos!

Author: Guest Post

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