British researchers successfully store information on strands of artificial DNA. The potential capacity of DNA outpaces all existing methods of information storage.
The stream of data stemming from the needs and offerings of the world’s citizens constantly threatens to overwhelm human capacity to physically contain it. In an experimental breakthrough, British researchers Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute successfully stored sonnets and speech excerpts on strands of DNA.
DNA serves an essential storage role already, stowing chemically-encoded genome information in the bodies of living things. Rather than interfering with the DNA capacity of an animal or human being, Goldman and Birney utilized artificially formed DNA synthesized by a specialized machine.
DNA synthesis machines are not yet able to produce a single strand of DNA capable of storing a useful packet of data. To combat this lag in technology, the researchers divided the original materials – including MP3s and PDFs – into chunks of overlapping data that could be examined and re-assembled by the synthesis machine. Decoding the data required a chemical reaction, in which multiple versions of the data chunks were generated, compared, and stitched into files accessible by the research team.
A revolutionary process ensured accuracy in decoding. The DNA synthesis machine examined duplicate data packets, compared their contents, and selected the contents that appeared in the majority of the packets received. Like a student synthesizing multiple sources in order to assemble a single research paper, the machine corroborated the information presented in order to produce an accurate and representative output.
Despite a few setbacks that the team attributed to peculiarities in DNA chemistry and machinery, Goldman and Birney successfully coded, decoded, and accessed data stored on the artificial DNA strands.
The implications for data storage are vast. The amount of data in all locations of the Earth combined is estimated to be three zettabytes, or three billion trillion bytes. Thanks to its capacity for astoundingly compact data storage, DNA strands are capable of storing the entire quantity of the world’s information in the back of a pickup truck.
DNA strands offer other advantages over current storage methods. While existing storage devices sustain damages and require replacement over time, DNA could conceivably store information for tens of thousands of years. Other storage mediums may be inaccessible by future civilizations, but researchers are confident that DNA’s presence in all life forms will ensure survival and eternal access for the information it stores.
However attractive the prospect of unlimited storage in small spaces, financially and technologically, DNA strand storage remains impractical. De-coding the data stored on DNA strands took researchers a full two weeks to tackle. As far as practical costs, DNA storage is untenable: compared to the magnetic tape storage currently utilized to store digital information, DNA strand storage is millions of times more expensive per megabyte of data. DNA storage remains foreseeably out of reach for the general public.
The researchers chose iconic works for their base materials during experimentation. Among the items selected was a PDF file of the original research findings of Crick and Watson related to the structure of DNA, a nod to the vast possibilities uncovered by rapid, continuous advances in DNA research.