Digital DNA

Digital DNA
All the movies, images, emails and other digital data from more than 600 smartphones (10,000 gigabytes) can be stored in the faint pink smear of DNA at the end of this test tube
Image Credit: Tara Brown Photography/ University of Washington

Last year a team of researchers from Microsoft and the University of Washington announced that they had stored and read back over 200 MB of digital data stored on laboratory synthesized DNA molecules. To put this in context, a typical picture on a smartphone is in the region of 3 – 5 MB. Last week another team reported that they had made further strides and have managed to store more information using DNA than was previously possible.

DNA is found in the cells of almost all living things including humans. DNA is made up of a sequence of code and carries the complete construction blueprints for determining how living things are put together and how they work. It carries instructions for everything from the colour of your eyes, to how tall you are, to your susceptibility to certain diseases. DNA works great to store information because it can make accurate copies of itself, and it has been refined as an information storage medium, through evolution over the course of billions of years.

On earth, the amount of digital data produced is doubling every two years as we digitize our lives and work. At the current rate of data production, within 30 years, we will produce over 500 million times more information than we do right now. That’s a lot more information and a lot more DVDs, or hard disk drives. The problem with hard disk drives and DVDs is that they have a limited lifespan, measured in decades rather than millennia and they are not very efficient at storing information densely. DNA on the other hand can store data over 1 million times denser than traditional media, and it has a longevity measured in millennia rather than in decades.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that a warehouse 1 km long by 1 km wide full of hard disc drives and PCs is required to store the data humans produced in 2016. By the time we reach 2046, we will require a space six times bigger than Ireland to store the data using current technologies. Using DNA to store this data is much more efficient and space saving; So that large shed six times bigger than Ireland, suddenly becomes a much more manageable 200 by 270 metres. At the moment the scientist have managed to store data at 128 million gigabytes per gramme of DNA, which they say is about 85 % of capacity.

However, I wouldn’t be rushing out buy lettuce, to store your movie collection, just yet, because the cost to store data on DNA comes in at about €3300 per MB to write it and a cool €950 per MB to decode it!!

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