In the current age of information and technology, efficient data storage is crucial. In February, for instance, we talked about the highly-advanced 5D digital data storage technique that could survive long after human extinction. When it comes to nature, DNA functions as a powerful storehouse of genetic information. Inspired by this, a team of researchers has come up with an incredibly innovative technology, using actual DNA strands to store up to 200 MB of retrievable data.
Over the last few years or so, the scientific world has increasingly started looking for futuristic data storage technologies that are tinier, yet more efficient, than currently-available devices. This is indeed necessary, given that world’s total data is rapidly heading towards an astounding 44 trillion GB by the year 2020. At present, even the best hard drives as well as optical storage tools, including Blu-Ray discs and DVDs, can last for only a few decades.
Efforts are being made to increase the life expectancy of these devices, while also miniaturizing them significantly. Of late, researchers are increasingly turning to nature for inspiration, particularly DNA and the mechanism is uses to store large amounts of biological information. Every cubic millimeter of DNA is capable of storing up to 5.5 petabits (around 125,000 GB) of data. As Luis Ceze of University of Washington points out, the entire 700 exabytes of the world’s internet data could be squeezed into a space as small as a shoe box, by using DNA strands as the main storage tool.
Furthermore, DNA is known to be incredibly sturdy, capable of storing information for several millennia when preserved properly. As part of the new research, scientists from the University of Washington and Microsoft have successfully managed to store 200 MB of data in DNA strands. Among the things stored are the Crop Trust’s seed database,the entire Universal Declaration of Human Rights in more than 100 different languages, HD music video of OK Go’s This Too Shall Pass and the top 100 books listed by Project Gutenberg.
Amazingly, the entire 200 MB of information took up a minuscule amount of space, comparable to the tip of a pencil. While 200 MB may not sound that revolutionary, it is a substantial improvement compared to the previous record, which managed to store only kilobytes of data in DNA. The team worked alongside Twist Bioscience to encode the information on individual DNA strands. This, according to the researchers, was possible, thanks to the similarities in structure between the binary computer code and DNA’s natural coding. Speaking about the breakthrough, Ceze said:
Interestingly, DNA already has a digital ‘flavor,’ as it has four bases and molecules that ‘stick’ to each other in a very programmable way. So the first step in storing digital data into DNA is to map strings of 1s and 0s into strings of As, Cs, Gs and Ts.
With the help of what is known as Polymerase Chain reaction methods, the scientists were able label each sequence, so that they can be easily located later. Following that, the DNA sequences were chemically translated onto a silicon-based DNA synthesis substrate that can in turn produce several of these sequences at the same time. This makes the manufacturing process a lot quicker. Finally, the generated DNA is placed into a test tube and then, dehydrated. As the team explains, the DNA can last for thousands of years, if stored away from direct heat and light.
To correctly read the stored information, one has to used a DNA sequencer that is designed to read sequences of As, Cs, Gs and Ts. It has to be run through special algorithms, in order to translate the information back into intelligible digital data. It is possible that parts of the information will be lost in translation, which could be reversed using computer memory-based error correction schemes. Ceze added:
Despite being reliable, DNA writing and reading have errors, just like hard drives and electronic memories have errors, so we needed to develop error-correcting codes to reliably retrieve data… There are still many challenges in making DNA storage mainstream. We will continue to focus on developing an end-to-end system and work with our Microsoft and Twist Bioscience collaborators to reduce the cost and increase the speed of writing and reading DNA.