DNA – The Hard Drive of the Future?
Last week in Boston, a team of scientists presented findings to the American Chemical Society (ASC). The concept of storing large amounts of data in a small space, and having that vessel be preserved for thousands of years, seems challenging. Until you think about how the cells in our body, through our unique DNA code, is doing just that.
“A little after the discovery of the double helix architecture of DNA, people figured out that the coding language of nature is very similar to the binary language we use in computers,” says Robert Grass, Ph.D. of ETH Zurich. “on a hard drive, we use 0s and 1s to represent data, and in DNA, we have four nucleotides, A, C, T and G.”
The Swiss researchers reported they have developed a technique for storing text, images, and video for thousands of years, coded into DNA and imbedded in glass spheres. Their study suggests data could be stored for 2,000 years, much longer than the average hard drive or cd.
DNA has advantages to hard drives: size and durability. Today’s wallet-sized external hard dives can store terabytes of data, and may last 50 years. In theory, a teaspoon of DNA could store over 300,000 terabytes, and from research on fossils and archaeological finds, scientists have found DNA that has survived for hundreds of thousands of years.
Data stored today has the convenience of simple retrieval. Data on a strand of DNA does not—yet. Silica based storage used today has the benefit of being very cheap, where synthesizing DNA was about $12,400 in 2013 for each megabyte of data, but that is coming down quickly.
Right now the researchers see the biggest benefit of this type of storage in preserving large amounts of data and images, perhaps for future generations. This may include important government and cultural information, but a major application may in fact be the storage of data generated by scientific projects.
Grass says, if it were up to him, he would take snapshots of the ever-evolving Wikipedia, for example, to preserve its various iterations so they’re not lost forever as users make edits.
The parallel between the storage capacity of our DNA and the storage capacity of today’s technology is interesting. Our DNA is natural, as is the DNA in plants and every living organism. The race to store the exponentially increasing amount of data we generate now has a new finish line—a target. To develop technology that can match the already amazing storage device that each of us has developed in every living cell in our body—that of our DNA.