Data, data everywhere. How about 10 trillion gigabytes of data in our digital universe? Add another 2.5 million gigabytes of data every day thanks to email, photos, tweets and other digital files. That number is only going up. The majority is stored in large exabyte data centres that cost over EUR 800 million to build and maintain.
DNA as a viable storage medium?
There’s another solution to storing the vast amounts of digital content. DNA contains all our genetic information, and it stores immense quantities of this information because of its high storage density. The idea of DNA digital data storage isn’t new, dating as far back as the late 1950s. However, its practical use has been severely limited. Imagine storing all of your digital photos, audio, documents and other files as DNA in one place? To be more precise, a coffee mug full of DNA could theoretically store all of Earth’s data. According to the journal ‘Nature Materials’, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard have developed a technique to label and retrieve DNA data files. This could help make DNA data storage feasible. “We need new solutions for storing these massive amounts of data that the world is accumulating, especially the archival data,” commented co-author Mark Bathe, an MIT professor of biological engineering in a news release by the same institution. “DNA is a thousandfold denser than even flash memory, and another property that’s interesting is that once you make the DNA polymer, it doesn’t consume any energy. You can write the DNA and then store it forever.” The scientific community has previously demonstrated that it can encode images and pages of text as DNA. This new technique encapsulates DNA files into DNA-barcoded silica particles. The MIT team can accurately extract individual images stored as DNA sequences from a set of 20 images. This novel method could scale up to 10²⁰ files.
Waiting for the price to drop
Using DNA as storage is very stable and easy. However, synthesising and sequencing comes at a very hefty price. It costs more than EUR 800 billion to write 1 million gigabytes. The cost of DNA synthesis will need to drop by about six orders of magnitude, something that’s expected to happen in the next decade or two. “If DNA synthesis becomes cheap enough, we would be able to maximize the data size we can store per file with our approach,” stated lead author and MIT senior postdoc James Banal. George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the study, referred to the technique as “a giant leap for knowledge management and search tech.” He explained: “The rapid progress in writing, copying, reading, and low-energy archival data storage in DNA form has left poorly explored opportunities for precise retrieval of data files from huge (10²¹ byte, zetta-scale) databases. The new study spectacularly addresses this using a completely independent outer layer of DNA and leveraging different properties of DNA (hybridization rather than sequencing), and moreover, using existing instruments and chemistries.” Revolutionising how we store and archive data in this way may seem too distant. It wasn’t long ago that we probably thought the same about data storage devices like flash drives and CDs.
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