Finding more storage space seems to be an ongoing quest for modern humans. Our daily lives reflect this, and usually from beginning to end; in fact, my morning began today listening to my teenagers bicker about the mess in their bedroom closet. One likes everything tidy and out of sight, while the younger tends to toss things into the closet as if it were a black hole for dirty clothes and items that are basically unwanted. Although met with some disdain for interrupting their routine morning debate on the way to school, I pointed out to both of them that the closet can be a very effective storage area when used correctly.
We also have the weekly roundup with everyone looking for their digital storage devices, with flash drives scattered about as if they don’t matter a bit, until the homework is due. I think tonight’s dinner conversation should be very interesting indeed—and if you are reading this, perhaps the same at your house tonight—as we talk about DNA and its potential not only to store data, but to do so safely for thousands of years.
This process has been picking up steam since 2012 when scientists at Harvard University used DNA as the storage medium for a whole book. Five years later, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began looking into DNA further for storage of information. While magnetic tape is a common and usually reliable way of storing everything from tunes to important research, it is bulky, and only good for about ten years. And the studies into using DNA reflect a common area often looked toward for inspiration: nature. This time, scientists are looking toward the magic of the human body as well as progressive technology like 3D printing.
“[Whether you are] a virus, a cucumber, an elephant, Donald Trump, whatever,” says Yaniv Erlich, a computer scientist at Columbia University. “You store the most important information in your life in your DNA.”
“We need about 10 tons of DNA to store all the world’s data,” says Erlich. “That’s something you could fit on a semi-trailer.”
Erlich also points out that DNA has little chance of ever becoming obsolete, unlike so much of the artificial storage technology we have produced thus far.
“It takes $1 and one hour to copy a tube of DNA,” says Emily Leproust, Chief Executive at Twist Bioscience, which uses 3D printing to write DNA. “It may sound high — but if you have in a tube the equivalent of a data center, you can copy an entire data center for $1 and one hour. That is absolutely unheard of.”
The 2012 Harvard paper, “Next-Generation Digital Information Storage in DNA,” was written by George M. Church, Yuan Gao, and Sriram Kosuri. Now an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, Kosuri states that on the topic of DNA, he found the paper to be one of the most simple published. See the graphic below to understand a little more about how binary codes can be transferred into data and then stored on DNA.
Some processes for actually writing DNA may not be cost-effective, but one company sees that differently with the use of 3D printing.
“We believe that we have a road map to be able lower the cost of DNA (synthesis) by a millionfold,” says Leproust.
While that is still in the conceptual stage, numerous researchers are involved in the study of how DNA can be used for storage, along with performing tests for accuracy. Currently, Erlich and his team are being funded by DARPA to continue working on algorithms that prevent error in DNA synthesis.
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[Source/Images: Financial Times]
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