The way we store data today is not meant for the long-term. While it may be convenient to plug in a USB flash drive and save photos and documents on it, that flash drive isn’t going to last very long, at least relatively speaking. Hard drives, solid-state drives, and other methods wear out over time. It’s a stark reality that many people, organizations, companies, and institutions have to face sooner or later. Researchers, meanwhile, have been experimenting with new forms of storage that can help solve this problem as well as other issues surrounding the more traditional options. Recently, scientists at ETH Zurich have made some tantalizing breakthroughs in storage technology. Their method? Using DNA to store information. The work done by these researchers could very well lead to DNA being the main storage option of the future.
The research released by scientists shows that they were able to store data within strands of DNA. In much the same way data is encoded with the 1s and 0s of binary code, DNA can store information through the four nucleotides that contain the blueprint for the creation of an organism. This isn’t some theoretical notion, either. The researchers were able to encode 83 kilobytes of information with DNA. That information included the Swiss Federal Charter from 1291 and the Methods of Mechanical Theorems written by Archimedes, which is a treatise that was copied by monks in the 10th century. The DNA strands housing this data were then encased in molecular spheres of glass, keeping the information intact.
This isn’t the only instance of scientists storing data within DNA strands. A couple years ago, researchers in the UK were able to encode DNA with the famous “I Have a Dream” speech from Martin Luther King Jr. by putting it into an mp3 format. Photos and text files were also saved in this manner. The glass encapsulation technique, however, was not used, meaning the durability of this stored data was relatively low.
These breakthroughs have incredible potential for future data storage. One important advantage DNA provides is the physical size of storage needed. A single ounce of DNA has the potential to store up to 300,000 terabytes of data. Compare that to the size of the average hard drive, which may only be able to store 1 to 5 terabytes at best right now. Obviously, the current sizes scientists are experimenting with DNA come nowhere close to reaching 300,000 TB, but discoveries like these require taking baby steps first.
The other major advantage DNA storage provides is durability. As mentioned above, hard drives, solid-state drives, and other methods eventually wear out. Even the most optimistic estimates put the lifespan of a hard drive at several decades. Scientists at ETH Zurich say their encoded DNA data can last up to 2,000 years, and that’s just a conservative estimate. Fossilized DNA has been found that is hundreds of thousands of years old. That’s why researchers have tried to mimic the fossilization process. DNA by itself can actually degrade quickly after just a few years. By using glass to encapsulate DNA strands, scientists can ensure the data lasts longer, with some even predicting the data can be stored for a million years.
That’s not to say DNA is set to fully replace hard drives within the next couple of years. A number of significant challenges remain. The actual process of writing data to DNA and reading it afterwards can be tricky. Not only that, but it is usually filled with errors that need to be corrected. Scientists have worked on solving that problem, but more complex data sets will need to be manageable and error-free for DNA storage to take off. Also of note is the high cost of manufacturing and encoding data to DNA. Researchers revealed that encoding that tiny portion of 83 kilobytes of data still cost about $2,000. While the cost of using new technology usually goes down over time, it will still be a while before DNA storage fully supplants traditional hard drives.
We may be years away from using big data tools like Apache Spark to access data encoded within DNA, but the simple fact that the possibility exists is enough to get people excited. Just imagine a world where large amounts of data are stored at a molecular level, guaranteed to last for thousands of years. It’s a world that is not that far off and may even be here before you know it.