Researchers say they have created a dramatically more efficient means of storing information within DNA than those currently available, potentially 100 times more. Such a breakthrough is significant, the researchers say, because storing information within DNA is much more robust and long lasting than things like magnetic hard drives currently in use.
BACKGROUND: DNA A PERFECT MEDIUM FOR LONG TERM DATA STORAGE
“The magnetic hard drives we currently use to store computer data can take up lots of space,” reads a story from BBC News announcing the new breakthrough. “And they have to be replaced over time.”
Instead, they note, using DNA, which is the preferred data storage mechanism of all forms of biological life, allows for huge amounts of information to be archived inside the anatomical roadmap of tiny molecules. And, that same story claims, “The data would also last thousands of years, according to scientists.”
ANALYSIS: INFORMATION STORAGE BREAKTHROUGH
To actually store data within DNA, researchers must build the individual strands one molecule at a time. Since DNA is composed of four base amino acids, Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine and Thymine, this often involves identifying one pair as zeros and one pair as ones. This construction allows the data to be stored in binary code, like most computer information.
However, unlike previous methods that take days or even weeks to store a few hundred megabytes of information at a particularly high cost, this new technique developed by the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), has designed a chip and a process they say can reduce that cost, while significantly improving the data storage capacity.
“The density of features on our new chip is [approximately] 100x higher than current commercial devices,” said senior GTRI research scientist Nicholas Guise in the BBC news interview. “So once we add all the control electronics – which is what we’re doing over the next year of the program – we expect something like a 100x improvement over existing technology for DNA data storage.”
OUTLOOK: DNA STORAGE STILL BOUTIQUE, BUT MAYBE NOT FOR LONG
According to the BBC report, “The high cost of DNA storage has so far restricted the technology to “boutique customers”, such as those seeking to archive information in time capsules.”
However, they note, the cost is mostly in the storage and eventual retrieval of data, so for long term storage purposes that cost may potentially be spread over decades, centuries or even millennia.
“It only costs much money to write the DNA once at the beginning and then to read the DNA at the end,” explained Guise. “If we can get the cost of this technology competitive with the cost of writing data magnetically, the cost of storing and maintaining information in DNA over many years should be lower.”
In the end, the researchers involved say this process will still need time and development to make its long term goals of lowered cost and higher efficiency. But, given the potential benefits for humanity, it is a process they believe is worth undertaking.
Or, as the story from BBC notes, “Scientists have said that, if formatted in DNA, every movie ever made could fit inside a volume smaller than a sugar cube.”
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction