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OPLIN 4Cast #320: Storing data on DNA

Posted in 4cast

DNASeems like it has only been a few years since we were using 3.5″ floppy disks to store all the data we thought we needed. Now you can easily buy a microSD card the size of your thumbnail for less than $10 that can store the same amount of data as 5,900 floppy disks. And in the future, is it possible we might actually be using DNA to store truly huge amounts of data? Some researchers in the US and the UK seem convinced that is exactly what the future holds in store for us — but not for a few decades yet.

  • Half a million DVDs in your DNA (Science/Robert F. Service)  “Institutions such as the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland, produce on the order of 15 petabytes of data each year. So the need for vast archival storage is growing rapidly. Now, such institutions commonly archive data by storing it on magnetic tape. Keeping that data safe over many decades requires rewriting it at regular intervals, adding to the cost of preservation. DNA, on the other hand, can be stable for thousands of years if kept in a cool, dry place.”
  • Why DNA will someday replace the hard drive (MIT Technology Review/Katherine Bourzac)  “The magnetic tapes typically used for archival storage become brittle and lose their coating after a few decades. And even if the physical medium used to store information remains intact, storage formats are always changing. This means the data has to be transferred to a new format or it may become unreadable. DNA, in contrast, remains stable over time—and it’s one format that’s always likely to be useful.”
  • DNA data storage (Engineering On The Edge/Brian Albright)  “The researchers converted their data into binary code, then converted it into trinary code (0s, 1s, and 2s). The data was then rewritten as strings of DNA chemical bases (As, Gs, Cs, and Ts). By encoding the information multiple times, they ensured it could be read back with 100% accuracy.”
  • The future of data storage revealed in molecules of DNA (Computerworld/Chris Poelker)  “The article states that the researchers believe it would only take 1.5 milligrams of DNA (the weight of a small mosquito) to store one petabyte of data. The implications of this news are astounding. If this innovative way of storing data actually becomes commercially viable, we would be able to fit the entire Library of Congress in a test tube. All the data housed on the Internet could be stored in a small closet.”

Cost fact:
DNA synthesis is currently so expensive, it would only make sense to use DNA storage for data intended to be kept for 500 years or more. Prices are dropping, however, and DNA data storage is expected to be cost-effective for general use within 50 years.