Scientists use DNA to store digital information

Published: April 28, 2106

PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CURRENTLY, STORAGE devices range from hard drives to solid state drives, as depicted on the right. The technology exists to store terabytes of data in a reasonably sized device. The storage of information on DNA would completely change the way in which data storage is thought of. The size of data storage would be able to be decreased, while increasing the amount of data able to be stored on it.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CURRENTLY, STORAGE devices range from hard drives to solid state drives, as depicted on the right. The technology exists to store terabytes of data in a reasonably sized device. The storage of information on DNA would completely change the way in which data storage is thought of. The size of data storage would be able to be decreased, while increasing the amount of data able to be stored on it.

MATTHEW DAVIS
Staff Writer

I know from my own experience that keeping things on different hard drives or solid state drive cards can be confusing, and most of the time they hold a very limited amount of data.

As the internet continues to boom, so does the need for storage and storage capabilities. One gigabyte of data was stored on hard drives the size of some small desks only 20-30 years ago. Now gigabytes can be stored on something as small as a micro-SD that is no larger than a fingernail.

Microsoft has recently partnered with the University of Washington to store digital data in the most unlikely of places – DNA. That is right, with some luck and funding, the paper that you need to work on later could be saved into your own DNA. The system also features error correction protocols to protect files and will also have random-access readability so that DNA could be the code for unlocking a door or getting money out of your bank account. DNA already stores everything about you and how a living system works, and the researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington think it also has the capability to store a picture of your family or dog.

“It is very, very compact and very durable,” said Luis Ceze, UW associate professor of computer and engineering.

This would allow photos and documents to be stored for hundreds or thousands of years. This all sounds amazing, but how is it possible?

Researchers were actually able to convert the binary (1s and 0s) of image files and other documents into nucleotide sequences. This means turning the picture of your dog that you just took into adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. The remarkable thing was that they were able to reverse the process and “validate the data without losing a single byte of information.”

One of the benefits already stated is that this data will be able to outlive data stored on hard drives or SSDs. The next step in the process is to find more uses for it and make it affordable to the common consumer. I know one thing I am not going to do is hold my breath until a lower price comes along. If the research is successful, we should expect this technology at an affordable price over a decade from its perfection.

With all things, there are some possible downsides to this new technology. Spike Narayan, Ph.D., the director of science and technology at IBM Research said he fears that the data could mutate or be erased. The data would then have to be extracted from your DNA which would cost even more money.

Narayan is very skeptical to whether the future of the ‘DNA hard drive’ is possible which is obviously very different from the views of Microsoft and the University of Washington. For now, and for probably the next 30 years, do not forget your flash drive in the computer at the library or at work.

Contact the writer: matthew.davis@scranton.edu

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