Once you understand that DNA is to biology as binary code is to computers, you can better understand how researchers have figured out how to store computer data in DNA.
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the source code for all living beings. It greatly influences who we are, and through a technique called CRISPR, can now help to reinvent who we will become, even.
Only four grams of DNA can now contain all the information humanity produces in an entire year.
Just as we’ve progressed from the early data storage days of 1.44mb hard drives to over 1 terabyte each, we will continue to find even more efficient ways to store our ever-increasing amount of data.
A study published in the journal Science seems to have demonstrated how DNA can and will be used in the future for our data storage needs. Researchers Yaniv Erlich and Dina Zielinski from New York Genome Centre managed to take DNA nucleotides and map them out into bits (0’s and 1’s) of code, in which 72,000 DNA strands translated into 6 computer files.
“To retrieve the information, we sequenced the molecules. This is the basic process,” Erlich recalls. They used software that translates the DNA back into binary.
Among the files were an Amazon gift card, an entire operating system, a computer virus for said operating system, an 1895 French film, a pioneer plaque, and a study done by information theorist pioneer, Claude Shannon.
"DNA won't degrade over time like cassette tapes and CDs, and it won't become obsolete – if it does, we have bigger problems," said Erlich, who studied originally at Columbia University.
One of the main components of the researchers’ system, DNA Fountain, is an algorithm that avoids errors when reading back the DNA coding.
"We showed that we can reliably store information on DNA, and that our organizing of information approaches 'optimal packing,’” Erlich said.
He thinks DNA data storage as a global solution could still be more than a decade away, and even once this is achieved, the technology may be reserved for important roles in patient data in medical systems.
“This is still the early stages of DNA storage. It’s basic science.” he goes on to say, “It’s not that tomorrow you’re going to go to Best Buy and get your DNA hard drive.”
Erlich points out an extremely useful property of DNA - it can last over 100 years.
“Traditional media suffers from digital obsoleteness. My parents have 8mm tapes that are basically useless now,” he added. “DNA has been around for 3 billion years, and humanity is unlikely to lose its ability to read these molecules. If it does, we will have much bigger problems than data storage.”
Erlich goes on to explain, “DNA has several big advantages. First, it is much smaller than traditional media. In fact, we showed that we can reach a density of 215 petabytes (1 petabyte = 1 million gigabytes!) per gram of DNA. Second, DNA lasts for an extended period of time, over 100 years, which is orders of magnitude more than traditional media. Try to listen to any disks from the 90s, and see if it’s still good.”
Imagine the possibilities of having nature help computers and computing?!
“This opens the possibility of using molecular biology tools to assist computing,” Erlich said. “Usually, it is the other way around!”
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