Backing up data might be one of my least favorite processes in the digital pipeline. It’s a slow tedious chore that can be both irritating and nerve racking. Get it wrong your hard work is lost forever, back up too often and you waste valuable space and time. In a world that’s churning out more information than ever, it’s often irrational to keep every little scrap of work, but what if we could? What if we were freed of memory limitations, if we could take every tiny bit of data generated and archive it for thousands of years without worry?
Research projects by Harvard and the European Bioinformatics Institute are exploring ways to do just that with a surprising and familiar ingredient: DNA. Yes, the tiny molecules that hold the keys to making life possible may one day become the world’s most efficient and secure storage medium.
On a normal hard drive, data is stored as tiny magnetic marks on a disk that revolves at high speeds. These marks are either positively or negatively charged, denoting a 1 or 0 to the computer system in the binary system that most digital savvy consumers are familiar with. So how does one take DNA, the fabric of life, and engineer it in a way that can be read by a computer? The first step is encoding the information onto DNA. If you recall from your high school biology class, DNA is made up of four unique molecules called guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine (easier referred to as G, A, T and C) that when sequenced correctly, can carry and duplicate information that contains the blueprints for life. Artificial DNA synthesis has been carried out since the early 1970’s, so by using a clever system of converting ordinary bits of data (1’s and 0’s) into the four different nucleotides (G, A, T, C) scientists have found ways to encode every day files, such as MP3s or JPEGs, right into the helix of DNA, and with that comes some serious advantages over traditional magnetic storage.
For starters, DNA is incredibly stable. Usually I have to run my old hard drives once every 3-4 months to ensure that they still read and write properly. Since hard drives are based on magnetic charges, it’s possible and even likely that the disk could lose that charge and, in the process, corrupt the stored data. DNA can be some of the most stable molecules in the universe — it has to be that way in order to reliably do it’s job — that everyone on earth is dependent on. With temperature and air control, the molecules can stay uncorrupted for ten thousand years or longer.
Other advantages include an amazingly compact storage medium and security in redundancy. DNA is so dense that it can store an entire college size textbook in one trillionth of a gram!
I typically have to dedicate a lot of my personal storage to video, which with higher resolutions constantly emerging, is a daunting and expensive task. Out of curiosity, I figured out how many hours of 4K REDCODE36 RAW footage you could store in a single gram of DNA. Ready for this? 8100 hours of ultra-high res footage in something that could fit on the tip of your pen. And about the security in redundancy, DNA was built to replicate itself, and it is incredibly efficient at it. Let’s say I wanted to store just a modest 810 hours of 4K footage. That leaves enough room in that same gram of data to store 10 copies of identical information. Having multiple copies of data allows for the computer to check other versions to make sure the data is written and read correctly, making for a foolproof backup medium.
Don’t dump your traditional hard drives just yet for their biological counterparts. Prices of synthesizing and reading DNA are astronomically more expensive than current magnetic equivalents. But that, as always, is expected to change over the coming decades. Currently it cost more than $12,400 to write a single MB to DNA and another $220 to read it, but many researchers expect this cost to drop dramatically over the next two decades. As for myself, I’m hoping it’s sooner than later. I can think of plenty of other uses for that cabinet full of hard drives downstairs.
Image source: Wired.com