Otherwise said: how to store your (terabyte) data on a DNA string. Amazing, isn’t it?
The first time I’ve heard about this deceptively simple idea was last year on the New Yorker, in a article by Andrew Marantz “Petri-Dish Pop“, which, among other things, relates a story.
“Two years ago, at a conference, Kulash met Sri Kosuri, a biochemist at U.C.L.A. “We are starting to reach fundamental limits of how densely we can store data on microchips,” Kosuri told Kulash. “We need new ideas.” Given that Kosuri is a biologist, his idea is DNA. “It’s information,” he said. “Our bodies use it to code for life, but it could be anything.” DNA comes in strings of “A”s, “C”s, “T”s, and “G”s; digital files—including music files—are strings of ones and zeros. Translating one code into the other is, for people like Kosuri, relatively straightforward. In 2012, Kosuri converted a book into DNA. Kulash said, “As soon as I heard that they could do this with a book, I went, ‘This is how we’re putting out our next album. ”
I couldn’t but remain fascinated, taking a mental note about it. So, when a few days ago Science Alert proudly announced “scientists have found a way to preserve the world’s data for millions of years, by storing it on a tiny strand of DNA preserved in glass” I was not that surprised. But still very, very pleased.
That DNA is one of the most durable things existing in nature, we already know since long time. After all, we have been able to sequence genoma from a 700,000 year old horse (yes, that ancient. Almost one million year). But that we could actually replicate what nature does (very well) and use it ourselves to preserve our precious data is something that has taken us longer to figure out. We are getting there, though, and possibilities seem endless.
Also, it is not just the length and/or the safety of the storage that matter, but also the amazing quantity of information we are able to upload. According to some estimates, 1 gr. of DNA holds 455 exabytes = 1 billion gigabytes. I guess I’m not running out of space any time soon.
The only bad news? Cost, obviously. This kind of data storage is still hugely expensive. In the experiment related by Science Alert, researchers had to spend US$1,500 to encode 83 kilobytes. That much. But considering how IT prices have gone down in the last twenty years, I am rather optimistic we’re going to make progress. So, if we end up like the dinosaurs, somebody from another civilisation (Earthian or alien) might well recover our Google Drives in a million year or so. Sort of creepy.
If you are interested in reading about the experiment, here is a link to the journal article where it has been published. Robert N. Grass, Dr. Reinhard Heckel, M. Sc. Michela Puddu, M. Sc. Daniela Paunescu and Prof. Wendelin J. Stark Robust (2015) Chemical Preservation of Digital Information on DNA in Silica with Error-Correcting Codes Angewandte Chemie International Edition, Volume 54, Issue 8, pages 2552–2555, February 16