A new method of storing data in the nucleotide bases of DNA is the highest-density storage scheme ever invented (Service, 2017).
As information and heritage professionals will realise better than most, our world is creating exponentially more data every day than ever before.
Data storage manufacturers can not keep up with the increasing rate of data creation. Hence our interest in the potential of data storage in DNA; the most dense method of storage conceived to date.
Capable of storing 215 petabytes (215 million gigabytes) in a single gram of DNA, the system could, in principle, store every bit of datum ever recorded by humans in a container about the size and weight of a couple of pickup trucks.
How does it work? Put simply, the binary codes (1 and 0) which are the basis of all digital data are assigned to DNA nucleotides which are the basis of all DNA sequences (these nucleotides are commonly referred to as A, G, T, and C).
So for example, the binary bits ’01’ could be assigned to the DNA nucleotide ‘A’, ’11’ to nucleotide ‘G’, etc. As long as those who wanted to convert the DNA strands back into digital data can interpret the key which was used, they will be able to read it. This brings us to the biggest benefit of DNA as data storage:
When stored properly, DNA can last hundreds of thousands of years, and as long as humans are able to read DNA sequences, the method would not become obsolete.
A data storage method that doesn’t become obsolete? As information and heritage professionals, why aren’t we hearing more about this technology?
Because it is still experimental and expensive. The process is not yet completely automated, can be prone to errors and is relatively slow.
An average iPhone photo would take several hours to store in DNA, though it takes less than a second to save on the phone or transfer to a computer (Ceze & Strauss, 2017).
Whilst scientists predict that these issues will be overcome in the future, science reporter Robert Service notes that for the moment the DNA storage method is better suited to archival applications, where speed is of lesser importance.
So, it might be worth dusting off our old science textbooks and brushing up on our biology!
Interested in learning more? Have a read of Ceze and Strauss’ fantastic article.