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DNA As Data Storage

Nearly every cell in your body has a DNA strand and this is what stores everything about you. It is the ultimate and oldest format of data storage. Wouldn’t it be cool if, say, all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a research paper and a photo could be stored on a barely visible strand of DNA? That is exactly what a team of researchers have done at the European Bioinformatics Institute of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

They encoded these files as DNA molecules, shipped them from America to Germany and then decoded them to be read on a computer. It was less than a megabyte of data, but it is a jump ahead from any previous research. The team was headed by Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney and they claim that DNA storage could eventually be used to hold a capacity far greater than all the digital information in the world.

Computers read data made up of 1s and 0s, while DNA is essentially made up of four different chemicals. To put it simply, the scientists made each chemical represent a number (in this case a 0, 1 or 2). One benefit to this is that it offers a good redundancy, since there are four different components that don’t repeat in a row. This means that if one of them gets damaged, it can be replaced more easily than on a standard hard drive since it will be clearer what is missing.

The great thing about DNA is that it lasts a very long time. Bones have been discovered that are millenniums old and the DNA sequence has been rebuilt as if it was still alive. Another bonus to using DNA is that it doesn’t need a power supply to remain intact, meaning that it can be stored and transported easily. This is better than current electronic archives that are stored for a long time as the data on them has to be copied periodically.

The biggest downside at the moment is the expense. At the moment it is estimated to cost around $12400 to put each megabyte of data on DNA, then a further $220 to decode it. That’s a figure that might be worth paying for data that needs to last an extremely long time, but at that price it certainly isn’t going to be in your home or business any time soon.

Just because it isn’t viable for widespread use at the moment doesn’t mean it won’t be in the next decade or so. The researchers state that it could even be used in its current form for things like government records or science projects that amass huge amounts of data with infrequent access times. Perhaps the greatest benefit of all is that it is pretty much future proof. At the dawn of the 21st century, NASA had to search online auction sites to find floppy drives in order to read data they had created in the 1960s and 70s. DNA has been around for more than 3 billion years and providing there are people alive then someone should be able to read it.


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