- Scientists say DNA molecules are more compact and long-lasting than any other method of storing information.
- Using the microchip, multiple strands of DNA can be simultaneously grown
- All films made so far could be stored in a space smaller than a sugar cube, if they were kept as DNA
Finding a way to store data efficiently and inexpensively in a world overwhelmed by data is becoming a more challenging daily task. Archiving information in DNA molecules is one of the most exotic solutions that could be the best. A significant step forward has been made toward storing information as DNA molecules, which are compact and last longer than other options.
Today, the world has about 10 trillion gigabytes of digital data, and everyday humans produce another 2.5 million gigabytes of digital data through email, photos, tweets, and other forms of communication. Many of these databases are stored in large data centers known as exabyte data centers (an exabyte is 1 billion gigabytes), which can be the size of several football fields and cost upwards of $1 billion to build and maintain.
DNA, which evolved to store vast amounts of information at extremely high density, holds an alternative solution to this problem. Professor of biological engineering Mark Bathe says a coffee cup filled with DNA could theoretically store all of the world’s data.
By storing vast amounts of information in tiny molecules, we would be able to keep our precious data on life’s preferred storage medium. Scientists also believe the data could last thousands of years. They claim their chip would improve existing forms of DNA storage by 100 over existing ones.
DNA is most commonly associated with life, not computers. A four-letter code, DNA, is itself a way of passing along information about an organism. Each nucleotide in DNA is represented by a letter, and the four different types of bases are:
- Adenine (A)
- Thymine (T)
- Guanine (G)
- Cytosine (C)
They provide the instructions for building all living things on earth, serving as the basis of all DNA code. The wells used to grow DNA on the chip are smaller than a sheet of paper and are a few hundred nanometers deep. Microchips with multiple microwells, such as the current prototype, can synthesize DNA strands in parallel. Current prototypes are about 2.5cm (1 inch) square. Thus, it will be possible to grow more DNA in a shorter period.
Information stored in digital storage systems is encoded as a series of 0s and 1s. Using the four nucleotides present in DNA, the genetic code can contain the same information: A, T, G, and C.
DNA has several other advantages as a storage medium: It is highly stable, and it is easy (but expensive) to synthesize and sequence. A DNA exabyte fits in your palm because each nucleotide, equivalent to two bits, is as tiny as a cubic nanometer.
A new retrieval method developed by the MIT team involves encapsulating each DNA file in a tiny silica particle. In addition to the single-stranded DNA “barcodes,” each capsule is labeled with the file’s contents. This approach was demonstrated by encoding 20 different images into long pieces of DNA that are 3,000 nucleotides long, approximately 100 bytes long.
There was a barcode labeled “cat,” “orange,” and “wild,” indicating an image of a tiger. When the researchers want to pull out a specific embodiment, they remove DNA samples and add primers corresponding to the labels they want to find.
Molecular Information Storage (MIST) is part of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) ADS Codex. MIST plans to acquire big-data storage for governments and the private sector for less than $1,000. Its short-term goal is to write one terabyte – a trillion bytes – and read ten terabytes within 24 hours. Taking advantage of DNA’s enormous capabilities will allow the world’s voracious appetite for data storage to be satisfied. As technology advances, new tools, as well as new applications, must be developed. You shouldn’t be surprised if the most valuable archives on earth find a new home in a collection of molecules the size of a poppy seed one day.
The error rate of DNA storage is higher than that of conventional hard drive storage. GTRI has come up with a method for identifying and correcting these errors in collaboration with University of Washington researchers. This research was funded by IARPA, an agency that supports science that addresses challenges relevant to the US intelligence community.