Researchers Prove Ground-Breaking Potential of DNA Storage of Digital Data

A team of researchers have successfully demonstrated that data storage in DNA can withstand archival decay of up to 2000 years, proving that we can look to DNA-based storage solutions to store digital data and information rather than conventional hard drives that fail after a few decades.

Scientists and researchers exploring the potential in using DNA as an archival, storage cabinet are expected to reveal significant results when presenting their work at the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), today.

Here’s how their experiment panned out:

  • Robert Grass and his team of researchers encoded DNA with 83 kilobytes (Kb) of text comprising of the Swiss Federal Charter from 1291 and the Method of Archimedes, from the 10th century.
  • The team proceeded to store the DNA in spheres made of silica before warming it to nearly 160F, or 70C for an entire week. That’s directly proportional to keeping it for 2,000 years at 50F or 10C.
  • Upon removing the DNA from the silica sphere, the team decoded the DNA. The data was intact. Error-free.

Hard Dri

DNA holds significant advantages over hard drives, in the bigger picture. While modern-day external hard drives hold up to 5 terabytes of data, a fraction of DNA could, in theory, have the capacity to store more than 300,000 terabytes of data. Moreover, modern archeological finds prove that DNA from hundreds of thousands of years ago can still be sequenced today, proving their longevity in the real world.

“If you go back to medieval times in Europe, we had monks writing in books to transmit information for the future, and some of those books still exist,” says Dr. Robert Grass, Ph.D.

Now, we save information on hard drives, which wear out in a few decades.

To drive home the point on how limiting and lacking hard drives can be, Vint Cerf, an internet pioneer and generally known as one of the “fathers of the internet”, warned of a “digital dark age” over the horizon.

“We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realizing it,” he said in Feb 2015.

The challenges and potential with DNA Storage

DNA Storage
Is DNA Data Storage the Future?

The ‘language’ subscribed by DNA is akin to the binary code we currently use in computers, confirmed Dr. Grass. Comparing the 0s and 1s used to represent data in a hard drive, he added that DNA code is etched in sequences of four chemical nucleotides, specifically – A, C, T and G.

Significantly, DNA can pack a lot more data in a smaller, microbial amount of space and also lasts longer than modern day storage solutions.

With Dr. Grass and his team of researchers successfully demonstrating the archival potential of DNA over long periods of time, they’re already taking on the next challenge – the problem of indexing and searching for specific data within the DNA strand.

“In DNA storage, you have a drop of liquid containing floating molecules encoded with information,” Dr. Grass noted.

Right now, we can read everything that’s in that drop. But I can’t point to a specific place within the drop and read only one file.

The team of researchers are already devising ways and means to label specific clusters of information on DNA strands in order to make them searchable.

A notable drawback, as with most new technologies in their early days is the cost for DNA storage. It will cost thousands of dollars to encode and save a few megabytes (Mb) of data in today’s world, Dr. Grass says. It will be a while yet before DNA-based data storage comes to exist in consumer technology, but the potential is there for all to see.

A single droplet of DNA could preserve entire archival troves of ancient texts; modern-day government documents; and even snapshots of Wikipedia, if it were up to Dr. Grass.

“This interest in preserving information is something we have lost, especially in a digital world,” he adds. “And that’s what I’d like to help address and encourage people to do: Save information we have today for future times.”

 Images from Shutterstock and Pixabay.

Samburaj is the contributing editor at Hacked and keeps tabs on science, technology and cyber security.